Warner Bros. (2013) 153 min. R
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski
Cinematography: Roger A. Deakins; Editing: Joel Cox & Gary D. Roach
Production Design: Patrice Vermette; Set Decoration: Frank Galline
Costumes: Renée April; Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Stars: Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor)
Prisoners has the slow, steady seep of other depressing, missing children milk carton movies such as Adam and Changeling, The Atlanta Child Murders and Gone Baby Gone. There’s no moment as gut wrenching as when the realization first dawns that these kids have been taken. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Following the disappearance of two little girls on Thanksgiving, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) must release his prime suspect (Paul Dano) from custody when no evidence surfaces to hold him. Feeling the system has failed, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), father of one of the missing girls, takes the law into his own hands, imprisoning the perp in an abandoned apartment building. Convinced he’s guilty, Keller tortures his hostage, subjecting him to progressively more inhuman treatment in an attempt to ascertain his daughter’s whereabouts. Meanwhile Loki hones in on another shady character and clues that indicate a wider conspiracy.
With a script by Aaron Guzikowski, the movie’s premise, through intention or happenstance, recalls the deeply unsettling 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing, which also shifted thematic focus from its intriguing, unexplained central disappearance to one man’s all-consuming obsession with finding the key to the mystery. Like him we suspect the worst, but it’s the not knowing that really gnaws at us, opening up a dark, yawning void into which we can project our most unspeakable suspicions. As it was with The Vanishing this is the rare movie that ends up validating those disturbing fears for us, leading to an ending so unsettling it’s like something out of Poe. Prisoners has the heavy, moral portentousness of a foreign film, something from Scandinavia perhaps, with its starkly opposing spiritual forces of good and evil clearly aligned counterpoint to one another, leaving fallible mortal man stranded somewhere in between. Which may be why cinematographer Roger A. Deakins chose to shoot it in the austere, autumnal tones of Ingmar Bergman. The Coen brothers’ regular cameraman, Deakins frequently shoots films (Skyfall, Doubt, The Reader, The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, Fargo) in which morally ambivalent characters are forced to make life-defining choices between right and wrong. But Prisoners’ vaguely fatalistic, European air may better be attributed to its French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, since his previous Oscar-nominated Incendies touched on many of the same themes (the mystery to be unraveled here also involves religious fanaticism and revenge, as relayed through parallel storylines, with allusions to the situation in the Middle East). Prisoners becomes a dark, modern-day morality play about parents tempted from the straight and narrow path, forced to take desperate measures that lead them into a quagmire of unconscionable behavior. It bears the same hallmarks as In the Bedroom, in that seemingly civic-minded citizens are still shown capable of breaking the law given the right circumstances.
Father Dunn (Len Cariou), the priest inserted into proceedings to serve as moral arbitrator (despite the fact that he’s under house arrest for buggering choir boys), is a cautionary example of how easily the good can cross into evil. His higher moral calling makes his own disgrace that much more condemnable. The priest pleads guilty to having imprisoned and murdered a man who came to him for confession, in order to prevent him from committing more unpardonable sins. Dunn had staged his own day of reckoning, despite the Lord’s caution that vengeance is his, that he will repay. Keller similarly tempts providence by torturing a man for his perceived wrongdoing. He’s preempting divine retribution by making Alex suffer a hell here on earth.
While convinced that he’s acting in the public’s best interest, helping to save lives, such questionable behavior leaves Keller, like the priest, morally suspect as well, accountable to a higher power for his actions. Considering Alex has the mind of a ten year old, Keller may as well have kidnapped a child himself. His suspect’s mental maturation was stunted when he was abducted in his own youth, making his treatment at Keller’s hands that much more reprehensible. He’s reenacting Alex’s childhood trauma all over again. When strains of choral music seep onto the soundtrack and sermons blare over the radio concerning the problematic spiritual state of man born in sin, we know Alex is supposed to be suffering Christ’s passion. But through its circumstantial chain of evidence, the movie initially manipulates us into siding with Keller. Alex’s inexplicable remark about the kids only having cried when he left them, his frighteningly feral, trapped animal reaction when momentarily freed from his bonds, and his cruel treatment of the dog he’s walking, picking it up by the leash when he thinks no one’s watching, seems to clinch it for us as it does for Keller. He appears to perfectly fit the profile for serial killing predators who begin their careers by mistreating small creatures. Many people abused in their childhood grow up to become abusers themselves, and the primary suspects here were both victimized in boyhood. Which is largely why Alex seems so averse to being touched during questioning and why that prisoner Loki takes into custody keeps storage ‘coffins’ containing bloody kid’s clothes in his spare room. He’s still trying to exorcise his own demons concerning what happened to him in the past, forbidding snakes spilling out onto the floor like Freudian outcroppings of his own tortured subconscious.
Having been sexually preyed upon as a child actor in the daring little 2001 indie drama L.I.E., the role that first brought him to attention, Paul Dano has grown into such a perfect physical specimen of a pedophile himself (the greasy hair and oversize glasses add a great deal to the illusion) we simply assume he did it, especially after he’s cornered by the police and tries to flee the scene. It’s easy to jump to preconceived conclusions about people. Dano gives a devilishly clever performance here, though most of his acting is obscured by those glass bottles covering his eyes or buried beneath a ton of black and blue makeup, stage blood and prosthetics which chart his ever escalating torture. Not since John Hurt in The Elephant Man has such persuasive playing been accomplished with so little actually visible of the actor’s physical form. At the most crucial point of his performance, he’s even reduced to acting with just one eye, through a well-directed spot of light, and that expressive optic becomes every bit as impressive as Detective Loki’s pronounced tic. Dano is doing a high wire act here, making us wonder whether his Alex is just putting on the mentally deficient act for the sake of the cops, as Loki momentarily suspects when he oversees his release, or if there’s more to him than meets the eye. By exonerating Alex of blame however, turning him into the sacrificial ‘bleeding’ victim, the movie subtly sidesteps the very moral issue it raises concerning whether these clandestine torture sessions would be justified if the assailant truly were guilty of what he stands accused. Even though evidence later comes to light clearing Alex’s name, while caught in the moment we’re thoroughly coerced into identifying with Keller’s motivations. Asked what we would do in the same situation, we find ourselves siding with the sadistic torturer, which is primarily Prisoners’ point.
The director wants to make us all culpable to an extent, secretly complicit in Keller’s actions, the same way the country silently condoned America’s reactionary torture of suspected terrorists after the 9/11 bombings. Given recent revelations concerning the inhumane treatment of Guantanamo detainees, the premise of Prisoners attempts to bring those chickens home to roost in America’s very own heartland. Keller similarly takes the law into his own hands, torturing the prisoner under interrogation to slake his thirst for vengeance. Assuming Alex is guilty even before he can be brought to trial, Keller sidesteps democratic due process, locking him up in a private prison of his own fashioning. With its peeling plaster, exposed wiring and bare, swinging light bulbs, the dilapidated rental property where he holds his hostage resembles a gulag or some weltering Third World hell hole.
The surroundings serve to link Keller’s tactics to torture techniques historically employed on dissidents and political prisoners by dictatorships around the world. At one point, Alex’s head is kept under a sack cloth casing, further strengthening the allusion. Such elements took me back to Roman Polanski’s 1994 adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden. In that film, a former political activist played by Sigourney Weaver takes hostage the man she believes had supervised her torture, in the interest of exacting revenge. Like her, Keller has no qualms about using muscle to coerce a confession out of the prisoner he’s holding on equally specious evidence. He mercilessly tacks a photo of the missing girls on the water torture chamber he’s constructed from scratch, “To remind us in case we start feeling sorry for him.” These abductors dehumanize their victim, the same way Keller does that deer he shoots at the beginning, to make what they’re doing to him more acceptable in their minds. “He’s not a person anymore,” Keller asserts, “He stopped being a person when he took our daughters.” It’s easier to violate Alex’s human rights if they cease regarding him as human. Keller’s acts of vigilante justice hearken back to such fascist cinematic ‘heroes’ as Dirty Harry and his brutal brood, who were cheered by audiences for stepping outside the law in the interest of bringing dangerous criminals to justice when the corrupt, bureaucratic legal process let them slip through the cracks. But Keller is no hero and the director expects audiences’ empathy for him to diminish proportionately as the time allotted to locate the missing girls runs out, increasing the pressure and prompting him to escalate the torture. Prisoners questions America’s personal culpability, asking us whether extreme acts of violence and torture perpetrated on prisoners can ever be truly justified on ethical grounds, whether the end ever justifies such extreme means. The movie is, in effect, carrying forward the same moral quandary posed by Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty, which concerned America’s unofficially sanctioned employment of torture during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. With the entire movie having been shaped around this metaphor, Prisoners might have been called P.O.W., but to make the theme more palatable for viewers who avoid war movies like the plague, it has been submerged in the wrappings of mystery suspense, well disguising itself in down home terms far removed from the War on Terror.
Still, the opening allusion is to The Deer Hunter which dealt with Vietnam, another war in which America was viewed as having acted unethically. The Deer Hunter was credited with being the first Hollywood film to deal directly with that conflict after war’s end, but the subject of Vietnam had been treated indirectly in scores of other films, much as America’s War on Terror is being indirectly addressed in Prisoners. The mentality that led hunter Robert De Niro to kill a defenseless deer at the beginning of Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winner was tempered by the character’s subsequent war experiences. After he’d returned from Vietnam a changed man at the end, the character laid down arms, allowing his quarry to live rather than perpetrating more unnecessary violence. By opening like the earlier movie, with Keller teaching his son how to hunt, Prisoners suggests that the ritualistic act of deer slaying is somehow steeped in similar mysticism and metaphor, which would surely startle the sort who habitually engage in such seasonal sport.
This predatory deer stalking instinct is treated as something ingrained in the American psyche, and passed down like an heirloom from generation to generation. Director Villeneuve has shared his own childhood memory of duck hunting, “You go out at 3 a.m. in a small boat. You see the mist coming off the water as you wait in the reeds. You’re with these men. It’s so dark and quiet, and then there’s this violence, the thunder of guns. I want to make a film about that one day.” With Prisoners he has. Similarly frightening, unexpected explosions of violence from a clear calm seem to define men like Keller, so it’s little wonder that the thought of his being the unhinged killer will be repeatedly entertained over the course of the movie.
The father himself is trailed at one point by Detective Loki, who suspects he may have actually been involved in his daughter’s disappearance given his strange subsequent behavior. When he enters the empty apartment where Keller is holding his own prisoner hostage, Loki’s first question is “I’m not gonna find your daughter here, am I?” Not quite, but same difference. When the little Birch girl is recovered, even she claims Keller was present at the house where she was held captive, putting our minds in a tizzy wondering if this is going to turn into another Secret Window, with an utterly preposterous and insupportable ending casually tossed in so that we can be sure to have never seen it coming.
In his last release, End of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal also played copper but in truth the tone of Prisoners bears far less affinity to that film than to Gyllenhaal’s creepy 2007 vehicle Zodiac, which was also about the hunt for a notorious serial killer. Prisoners bears the hallmarks of a police procedural in other ways as well, with Gyllenhaal embodying a cinematic construct we’ve become all too familiar with. This is the cop who’s solved every case he’s ever been assigned which is akin, in theory, to that other well-worn Hollywood concoction, the psychologist with only one patient. Still, Gyllenhaal has created a lively little tic in his eyes to give the character color, which is good because the low-key Loki doesn’t give us much personality on his own. Instead we measure his reactions based on those operatic optics, the pace at which they flutter in excitement or roll in exasperation, or unconsciously flicker on cue. They make a great comedic team, providing just about the only humor in this grim, punishing film. Those peepers even go a ways toward stealing the nail bitingly suspenseful ending, during which they’re blinded by the blood seeping from a head wound as Loki tries to inch his way to the hospital in the midst of an ice storm. We find ourselves as concerned for his eyes as they blur and glaze over, fading away, as we do the child he’s shepherding. Loki is seen eating Thanksgiving dinner alone in an empty restaurant when we first meet him. With no family of his own to spend the holiday with, we assume the missing little girls are going to become his surrogates, stoking his preoccupation with bringing their killers to justice. And since this cop claims to have grown up in a boy’s home he’s more familiar than he cares to be with the dynamics of adult predators and their young prey, a fact that permits him to identify with the victims.
As Keller relates to his son Ralph, the most important advice his father ever gave him was to always be ready. He’s subsequently adopted the personal motto to “pray for the best and prepare for the worst.” “My husband likes to be prepared for emergencies,” his wife Grace (Maria Bello) explains as Loki peruses a well stocked basement, provisioned as if by a doomsday survivalist. Having built this bunker to shelter his family from all manner of imagined threats, Keller is tortured by the knowledge that, despite his vigilant prepping, he still failed to keep his daughter safe when she needed his protection most (“Every day she’s wondering why I’m not there to rescue her.”). Preoccupied with threats from outside, he finds himself caught off guard by the garden variety dangers he never saw coming. “You made me feel so safe. You told us you would protect us from everything,” his anguished wife accuses, but Keller proves woefully ill-prepared, emotionally and psychologically for the unexpected blindside he’s hit with. Ralph claims his father has abandoned them when they desperately need his reassuring presence around, in order to pursue his own blind quest for vengeance. But Keller is incapable of providing the sort of tender support his distraught wife and son need. Instead he responds to the situation like a man under siege, believing to expose his sensitive side at a time like this would just make him seem weak when he wants to appear strong and undaunted. When this hunter begins to feel like the hunted he goes on the defensive. Volatile and explosive, Keller is the type who is only comfortable expressing himself through violent acts of physical aggression, so beating the truth out of Alex provides a convenient therapeutic outlet. It’s his way of proving how much he cares, how concerned he is for his daughter’s well being, despite his tough exterior. He’s out to demonstrate that he’s capable of protecting his family after his wife’s words had pierced him to the core. By taking the perp prisoner, Keller is trying to reassert his impugned manhood, take back control of a situation that has left him feeling as weak and ineffectual as his family now sees him. When Keller kicks over his daughter’s dollhouse in rage, we realize that his obsessive determination to locate his missing child is not just about her any longer, but about proving himself still capable of keeping his family intact. In his hunter’s camouflage, workman’s boots, logger’s beard and plaid fleece, Jackman has gone all blue-collar for this virile part. And though it runs counter to reason after having won so many hearts opposite Meg Ryan in the fancy dress Kate & Leopold and been nominated for an Oscar for Les Misérables, the actor actually seems more at home in modern parts like this, that allow him to be brutish and visceral. It’s no wonder Wolverine has become his signature role (he was good as a similarly two-fisted type in Real Steel and as the untamed Drover in Baz Luhrmann’s campy historical romance Australia as well). Jackman is only at the top of his game when he allows the rangy, outback bushman in him to come out and play. Rugged, hirsute brute force parts such as this capture the spirit that best suits his persona. And in Prisoners, perhaps his finest performance, Jackman has found a way to streamline that inconsistent, wild talent, tapping into his wolverine woodsiness for a part where it’s possible to accept such rugged he-mannishness at a level more serious than comic book camp. And when one can’t, the humor itself is derived from that same source, the character’s own testosterone clouded aggressiveness. Keller, who can’t control his temper, seems more unstable than the preternaturally becalmed culprit. He’s so impulsively bull-headed all he can see is red, like Loki at the end, blinded by his own blood.
Keller’s modest home with its log cabin façade set in a working class neighborhood that feels economically depressed, is contrasted with the more upscale residence of friend Terrence Howard. They may live only blocks apart but socially they seem a world away from each other. It’s the black family here that is depicted as being as conventionally middle class as any WASP, and while it’s likely intended as a positive depiction, having the Birches appear so bougie defuses interest in them. The movie tries to reverse the established racial stereotypes by making the whites the overemphatic, emotionally demonstrative ones here rather than the ethnics in residence, but that just means they become as conventionally vanilla as any dull white breads. It’s too late in the day for onscreen blacks to still be suffering from the Sidney Poitier syndrome.
And one is never quite convinced of the friendship between the two families, nor what precisely it’s based on. The soft spoken, timid, well off Frank and the belligerent, hostile, struggling Keller seem nothing alike and we get little feel for the interplay between their wives or older children. And while the youngest two girls (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) have a natural, unforced rapport, being the victims of the kidnapping means they’re offscreen for the majority of the movie. They’re gone before we’ve been given much chance to invest ourselves in them and so we subsequently worry for their safety in the same detached way we would any missing child we hear about in the news. There’s something even more distressing that occurs with Prisoners. As the fallout from the abduction is played out among the two sets of inconsolable parents, for some reason the movie seems slanted to accord greater emotional weight to the loss of the white child than the black. The movie is almost exclusively focused on Keller’s way of working through his grief, at the expense of the other characters. His pain seems far more significant simply because he’s so vocal about it. Even the sorrow of his bedridden wife, whose self-medicated misery has left her a prisoner to her pills, seems a pittance in comparison to Keller’s welling agony of despair. Terrence Howard’s Franklin Birch is roped into becoming Keller’s unwilling accomplice, and the character is placed in a position where he’s meant to serve as surrogate for complicit viewers who have likewise become accessories after the fact. Franklin tempers Keller’s loose cannon, trying to reason with him using words of caution. With that soft, drawling whine of a voice, velvety smooth caramel skin and sensitive, tapering fingers, Howard has always struck me as an odd man out in roles that require him to strut his machismo like Dead Man Down, Fighting, his Oscar-nominated pimping performance in Hustle & Flow. All you have to be is black in America to be perceived in such light.
Where Jackman makes a most persuasive bruiser, Howard is too smooth an operator for such parts. He belongs in drawing rooms, tripping to the light fantastic in three-piece suits. So it makes more sense to see him cast as a whipped milquetoast here (as he was in Crash), giving voice to the audience’s own reservations about the rash extremes Keller has gone to. Franklin is the one after all who first points out the obvious, “This ain’t right. This has to stop.” He’s even had a pair of spectacles plopped on him by wardrobe to make his character seem weaker and even more indecisive.
Yet just when we’re beginning to fear that the ethnic character has been inserted in the cast to point up the white man’s historic moral failings, Viola Davis steps in as she did in Doubt, to rescue the situation from such easy moral certitudes. Rather than being appalled, when Franklin’s wife Nancy discovers what the two men have been up to, she becomes part of the conspiracy, aiding and abetting, playing good cop to Keller’s bad, using honeyed promises rather than hard fists to try milking a confession out of Alex. She believes she can keep the blood off her own hands by remaining a passive bystander in proceedings, telling her husband, “We won’t help kill him, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” She’s like those collaborators during World War II who stood silently by, without intervening, as countless friends and neighbors were dragged away to the gas chambers. Like them, she believes that not acting directly absolves her of any moral culpability. But biting her tongue seems just as damning when she should be vehemently protesting such flagrant violations of international amnesty laws. As in Doubt, Davis’ work proves a one shot wonder here. Her ethically chilling, Lady Macbeth-scaled sketch knocks the film on its head, stopping the show. We keep waiting for more from her but the movie just leaves the fascinatingly enigmatic character dangling. Like Maria Bello she’s given nothing further to add to proceedings and rarely have two such richly gifted actresses been so wantonly wasted. Bello in particular seems so undistinguished, Virginia Madsen might be playing her part.
Gyllenhaal actually shares co-starring honors with Jackman here and their characters spark one another, as Loki becomes amusingly exasperated in his attempts to deal with the bereft father who is always poking his nose in police business, angrily trying to tell him how to do his job. Loki starts out clearheaded counterpoint to Keller, but soon the two start rubbing off on each other in good ways and bad. Like Keller, Loki begins to betray a lack of impulse control, giving in to his violent instincts, treating his prisoner as badly as Keller does Alex. His lack of professionalism nearly botches the investigation. When the suspect in custody gets hold of Loki’s pistol during a scuffle, the one link to the case is lost, the solution to that maze he was drawing going with him. Loki’s uncharacteristic behavior is prompted by Keller’s cutting words, placing the blame for his daughter’s murder squarely on his shoulders, just as a distraught Keller had been set off by the unwarranted earlier accusations of his wife. While Loki no longer seems capable of keeping a lid on his anger, Keller by turns begins to appropriate the detective’s logistical investigative methods. It’s Keller who puts together the pieces of this puzzle first, locating his missing daughter before the police can. And since his solution to the mystery results from a bolt out of the blue, his senseless torture of Alex is shown to have been without purpose, not advancing events in any appreciable direction. But because Keller ends up solving the case before Loki can, there’s still that unfortunate lingering perception that his actions were somehow warranted, weakening the polemic Prisoners is advancing about the end failing to justify the torturous means.
The victim discovered in Father Dunn’s basement claimed to have been waging a war on God and since there are far more plausible excuses the assailants could have devised for their crimes, the one Prisoners comes up with strains credibility. These abductors were once devout, Pentecostal snake handlers, traveling the country, handing out pamphlets, spreading the good word. They put their own faith in God to the test at every service, believing he could cure even venomous viper bites (much as Keller prays for God to save his daughter when she’s injected with poison at the end of a syringe). After having sacrificed their lives in service to Him, they lost their faith when an ungrateful God took their only son from them. By taking kids themselves, they want to place other parents in the same straits. They deprive them of progeny to destroy their faith in ineffective religion, which can offer no solace.
In essence they’re forcing the bereaved parents to endure the tribulations of Job in order to put them to the test, to see if people will retain their faith under such extreme duress or turn their back on God and hope of everlasting salvation. Serial killers are frequently demonized as monsters in the popular press, and if true evil exists surely it comes in benignly susceptible forms such as this. The abductors have declared war on heaven itself, as the devil is supposed to have done before being cast down. These satanic emissaries zealously perform the evil one’s own earthly task, tempting the unwary into believing God is angry with them and that they are being punished unjustly. Each devout churchgoer they can convert into a raging demon railing against heaven like them, ranks as a small victory in their diabolic agenda. It is no coincidence Prisoners begins on Thanksgiving, given that the abductors’ primary motivation is to strip parents of their sense of gratitude for God’s greatest blessing.
Keller is a carpenter by trade, and the fact that he shares the same profession as Christ is meant to serve as irony in light of his subsequent actions. His opening line is the Lord’s Prayer, which he’ll reiterate later in the midst of the torture, faltering over the line ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Prisoners is awash in symbolism such as this. It’s the sort of film where the sympathetic skies start weeping in commiseration the second the girls go missing. The story becomes about Keller’s quest for absolution, to be cleansed of the killer instinct he shares in common with the predator who abducted his daughter, preying on her as pitilessly as her father had that helpless deer near the beginning. Violence seems to breed violence and it comes full circle here in a satisfyingly structured way. Keller’s obsessive pursuit of justice will ultimately entrap him in his own prison of sorts, like the lead in The Vanishing. Having succumbed to his worst instincts, become the demoniac fury the killers wished to unleash on the world, he’s revealed to have been acting as their unwitting puppet all along. Being forever entombed in the bowels of the earth, his own private hell hole, is judgement on him. He’s left flicking on and off the receding light of hope as he’s swallowed up by the moral darkness that’s been slowly enveloping him. That Keller is saved at all is directly attributable to the fact he’s praying in his final moments, proving he isn’t losing his religion, as the conspirators had hoped. With Christmas around the corner he’s rewarded with a miracle out of scripture for keeping the light of faith burning. But since the children are returned safe and sound, their parents are never really put to that supreme test, as Job was. Consequently, we get only an inkling of how thoroughly the diabolic influence would have pervaded their lives if things had turned out differently.
Taking place over the course of one Thanksgiving holiday season, the French Canadian director evokes a feel for time and place that’s nearly as tangible as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Since everyone in the picture is imprisoned in one form or another, by their grief or their past, they’ve each been given choice turns here. Prisoners’ primary appeal is a very fundamental one for film fans. One is drawn to it first and foremost for the pleasure of seeing all these wonderful actors holding the screen while they descant at one another. It’s a rarity to find a quality cast this gilded with talent (four Oscar nominees, one winner, and two more that should have been in the running at one time or another) in such strong, character driven drama. Prisoners offers up an Oscar bait smorgasbord and we want to see who comes out on top.
Prisoners starts out slow, to lull audiences into a false sense of security, but once it gets a grip on the viewer, it doesn’t let go. It may have one too many false endings tacked on, but it keeps us hanging all the same right up until the exciting conclusion. It has the creepy crawl of a horror film and some of the movie’s most suspenseful scenes, where characters are ushered into unknown spaces with limited visibility, have become trademarks of the genre. It happens when Loki jumps down into Father Dunn’s basement, though there are no stairs and no indication how he’ll get back out. It happens again when the detective busts into the fly strewn home of a suspect, only to be confronted with bloody animal parts strewn about and a room littered with padlocked, child-sized storage containers, as if he’d stepped into a mausoleum. When Keller enters the killer’s house at the end we’re left on pins and needles watching him willingly walk into the jaws of death as if inviting his own fate. The movie’s most taut sequence however remains the finale with Loki racing to the hospital as the odds against him seem to progressively mount. The perfect movie would have ended on the strength of this first miracle, without trying to top it. Prisoners is well-wound, with only one or two moments, such as the prayer vigil and the scene where Keller shows up on the courthouse steps to accost Alex as he’s being released from custody, seeming self-conscious in their staging. There are also some continuity issues (we’re apprised that several days have passed but we haven’t been kept abreast of the tortures) and though suspense is built into the premise (“Kids gone for more than a week… have half as good a chance of being found. And after a month, almost none are found alive…”), the time element isn’t brought into play as strongly as it should be in the first half to make us really feel Keller’s mounting panic as time ticks away, influencing him to step up the litany of torment he’s inflicting, in order to make Alex talk.
It’s a somber, sobering affair but the long arm of coincidence prevents Prisoners from becoming as bruising as it intends to be. With the sprawl of a crime novel, Guzikowski’s carefully structured script is more clever than average. But he’s so determined that every piece of the puzzle should logically snap into place, the threadbare design begins to show through a bit baldly. The script has been structured like a big maze itself, akin to the repeated metaphor scrawled on the suspect’s walls, scribbled on scrap paper, contained in children’s books, medallions. But while it’s impossible for the kidnap victims to find their way out of the labyrinth presented to them, and hence no way to escape their captors and go home, the similar challenge presented the movie audience is quite soluble. Once we grasp the answer to Prisoners’ puzzle, we’re released to return home as well, but with the God’s-eye view of things we’ve been accorded by the omniscient director, we can cheat. Seeing the grand design behind it all makes it a cinch to navigate our way through the corn maze. We remember where we’d seen that image the suspect feverishly maps out long before Loki ever does, proving almost as impressive amateur detectives as Keller does himself.