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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.