Skip to main content

Do you feel bad for cows when you go into McDonalds?

Prisoners
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Prisoners is a ridiculous, self-important, exploitative piece of schlock masquerading as serious drama. It looks great, boasts a lustrous cast and is directed by Denis Villeneuve with, at least at first, convincing portentousness and all the grim determination that hundreds of thousands of gallons of artificial rain can muster. But it’s a really dumb movie, one that prods at big issues without the brains to do anything with them, and comes up with the kind of eye-rolling twists that wouldn’t look out of place in your bargain-basement standard serial killer fare like The Bone Collector or Kiss the Girls.


Prisoners announces itself as aiming for something more lofty by stepping up to the plate and dealing with the ramifications of a sensitive subject like child abduction. Big Hollywood movies that tackle child abuse have invariably floundered in a swamp of revenge fantasy that serves to undermine any serious intentions (Sleepers, the overrated Mystic River). That Prisoners falls back on every standard thriller convention in the book quickly exposes the shallowness of the picture, but makes it’s failings that much worse; I don’t doubt that it wasn’t by the design of Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski, but it feels like they’ve cynically loaded the movie with every cheap audience-beating tactic they can muster.


The set up finds the daughters of two couples (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello’s Keller and Grace Dover and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis’ Franklin and Nancy Birch) going missing at Thanksgiving. A manhunt begins, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki (unfortunately he doesn’t have any trickster moves up his sleeve, or his buttoned-up tieless shirt) is put in charge of the case. Prime suspect is Hollywood’s go-to guy for squirmy, chinless degeneracy Paul Dano (as camper van man with the mind of a 10-year old Alex Jones). With clues not exactly queuing up, and nothing on Alex, Jackman’s God-fearing survivalist takes matters into his own hands and imprisons the suspect in his own private Abu Ghraib.


Again, I’m sure the filmmakers’ intentions were honourable (as in torture is never the answer) but the narrative tells a different story; Jackman’s raging dad may not be right about Alex, but his methodical brutality sees him crack the case, leaving Loki to mop up the remains. The only way this would have been a successful condemnation of such methods would have been for Alex to have no connection the abduction at all (because, if not for Keller beating the living shit out of Alex and threatening him with a claw hammer and scalding him, his daughter would likely be dead). There’s nothing actually insightful or testing about this scenario, because it is built upon by such an overtly B-movie sensibility.


During the first half, there’s a vague possibility that Prisoners might amount to something more. The film is blessed with a very strong performance from Hugh Jackman, who is so convincing he enables you to forget momentarily how unsubtle Keller’s characterisation is. And Howard is also strong as a man too moral (read weak; he doesn’t have what it takes to uncover the truth) to have a stomach for Keller’s chosen methods (there's an interesting moment where Nancy backs Keller's terrible methods rather than her husband's conscience). There are the shapings, or at least the potential, for a scenario akin to Doubt, where the weight of circumstantial evidence and “he looks the part” becomes all that is needed to judge, jury and execute. 


But Prisoners isn’t even a tenth as insightful as John Patrick Shanley’s film. Alex drops clues to show us that Keller is right. In a film that lasts a mystifyingly elongated 2½ hours, Guzikowski repeatedly artificially extends the plot by the most obvious and ruinous delaying tactics. Loki has to be one of the most inept detecives ever, and it’s mystifying that he hitherto had a flawless track record for solving cases. It takes him an eternity to get to the bottom of the abduction of Alex, despite breathing down the neck of the solution and stating as much (he does a tour of his holding house, and receives a phone call just at that crucial moment prior to discovery). He happens across a suspect by good fortune, loses him, grabs him again, then enables a situation where said suspect blows the back of his own head off. Fortunately, the weirdo has left a cryptic clue, and in a bout of paper tossing frustration Loki discovers exactly the inspiration he needs. Yes, this movie is just that cliché-strewn.


Did Roger Deakins cinematography just distract everyone from the train wreck of a plot (credit where it’s a due, there’s a stunningly shot car race-against-time across a hallucinogenically rain-lashed motorway)? If Villenuve had made The Frozen Ground instead, which I watched a few weeks ago and has far more compelling subject matter, his invested approach might have done something interesting with that true-life case and he could have left this unfortunate mess well alone. But Prisoners had everyone from Wahlberg (he has a producer credit, but then Wahlberg has a producer credit on everything) to Bale to DiCaprio circling it at one time or other. Is it just the case in Hollywood that, if you see an important subject is broached, it must be good? I guess so.


There are some unintentionally funny scenes in here too. Most of them involve Gyllenhaal trying to act his socks of, giving himself an eye tremor and the general air of someone distressed at having to make Zodiac all over again (the news is, he’s not; this is about as far from a masterpiece as one could imagine). There’s a hilarious scene where Jake opens a series of locked cases filled with snakes. Each time he opens one he has the same shocked as the last. And  those snakes don’t half slither! Then there are the crew digging up shop mannequins. And Jake telling his Captain to go fuck himself (of course)! Best of all is the reveal of the true fiendish mastermind, in which Oscar Winner Melissa Leo pulls a gun and proceeds to explain just how she dang well did it. And she would have got away with it too, if wasn’t for that meddlesome Gyllenhaal.  


I expect the decision not to show poor beardy Hugh (that’s his character right there, in that beard) being rescued is a comment on his culpability. But hey, unless they drag up his cold dead corpse (as opposed to the celebratory sound of him tooting on a whistle) he’s still the movie’s de facto hero. He wuz right, and he saw it through. He’s like Mad Mel in Ransom, but without the sense of malevolent fun.


Prisoners is not a good movie. It might have been a passably hokey B picture if it had been straight up honest about its gutter trawling. But Villeneuve has fashioned a mantle of importance and worthiness unsupported by the content; the results are both laughable and borderline offensive. 


**  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.