Friday, September 20, 2013

A Reel Review: PRISONERS

PRISONERS, the latest film from Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve, is a film which tries to be many things at once; a whodunit, a family-drama, a police procedure and a cold-case solver. Cramming in so many different genres and storylines into a single film isn’t unheard of, nor is it always a mistake; which puts the burden on PRISONERS to make everything blend together.
Keller (Hugh Jackman), his wife Gracie (Maria Bello) take their family to spend Thanksgiving at their neighbor’s and best friends family home (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). After dinner, their daughters vanish, which causes Keller to kidnap and punish the lone suspect in the case (Paul Dano); a dimwitted young adult with a poor IQ who is cared for by his aunt (Melissa Leo). The mystery of the missing girls is tackled by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall).

PRISONERS sets itself up to be a complex whodunit film with lessons of morality sprinkled all over it. The film seeks to explore just how far a person would go to find their missing children, and the places it goes are dark and meant to disturbing. However, PRISONERS often gropes around in the dark with no light to guide it. Once Keller takes matters into his own hands and begins his rite of torture against the lone suspect in the case, the film loses focus and goes all over the place. Detective Loki goes and does his thing while Keller does his, which involves a pointless time-waster of a subplot involving a priest, and the storylines never quite mesh and PRISONERS completely loses its way. The many complexities strip the emotion from the film, and for a story that is supposed to make us feel for parents of missing children…you won’t find yourself giving a rats ass about any of it.
Director Denis Villeneuve was smart enough to hire Roger Deakins as his cinematographer for PRISONERS, which is about the highlight of the technical side of things. Deakins does his usual brilliant work here; using excellent dim lighting techniques to match the grim nature of the film. Villeneuve in the meantime derails all that with very pedestrian directing as his camera never does anything inspired. He also seems to feel that the audience is full of idiots; objects and places are shown over and again as if we missed it the first 50 times. Dialogue through the entire film is full of melodrama; every line over-reaches and we are punished with cringe-worthy crap that no human being would ever say in real life, not to mention untimely curse-words that always feel out of place. The film also has some sluggish pacing; it’s running time of two-plus hours feels more like a thousand.

Acting is decent throughout, although every cast member seems to be grasping for something to latch onto. Hugh Jackman shows much of the ferocity that he has been known for, and can occasionally bring the tears. Maria Bello works the hardest and does well, while Terrence Howard might as well have been a chair on set. Paul Dano turns in his creepiest performance ever, and Melissa Leo is brilliant as always. The movie belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal, who gets the most screen-time (an odd move since we’re supposed to be empathizing with the parents), and makes the most of it.

The last act is loaded with many twists and turns, many of which are clever and almost salvage the ride. By that time however the convoluted storytelling and painfully slow pacing has taken its toll, and the ending (which is a weird one), can’t come soon enough. PRISONERS has a lot going on inside, but nothing to show for it.


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