Movies Without Pity
Prisoners: Lock This Movie Up and Throw Away the Key

For those folks who though Se7en was too cheery and Zodiac too fast-paced, here comes Prisoners, a sprawling crime drama in the tradition of David Fincher, but minus his level of artistry. Given that it's predicated on one of the worst nightmares for any parent -- the sudden, unexplained disappearance of a child -- I can't deny that the movie often unnerved me, particularly during its first half-hour in the immediate aftermath of the crime. But as Prisoners plodded along for 153 minutes, I grew increasingly detached from the scenario and more conscious (and resentful) of the way director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski were manipulating events in the cause of false profundity. A movie like Zodiac (and Se7en to a degree, although Andrew Kevin Walker's script is far from subtle) amounts to far more than the details of its central mystery precisely because Fincher doesn't grab viewers by the neck and force them to look between the clues. Prisoners wants us to know it's, like, all metaphorical and stuff… even at the expense of the facts of the case.

To understand what the movie's driving metaphor is, you only have to look at the title, which describes a state of mind (and body) that applies to everyone in the movie. The first and most obvious set of prisoners are the missing children themselves, adorable tykes Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) who are kidnapped from their non-descript middle-class suburban enclave on Thanksgiving day while their respective families are enjoying some post-turkey hang-out time. Their disappearance makes emotional prisoners of the parents they leave behind -- Keller and Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) respectively -- as they each sink into personal prisons built out of grief and, in Keller's case at least, a thirst for vengeance.

But wait, there are even more prisoners inhabiting this apparent hellscape of strip malls and split-level homes! Take Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the investigating officer assigned to the kidnapping, who is imprisoned by his own stellar record (he's solved every case he's been assigned to date and when you've got that kind of batting average, a loss is devastating) and his increased obsession with connecting the pieces of this very difficult puzzle. And last but not least, there's Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally-disturbed young man who becomes the prime suspect in the case. Although the lack of evidence frees him from his holding cell at police HQ, he's promptly re-captured by an unhinged Keller, who locks him up in a makeshift prison he constructs in an abandoned house. This particular scenario is the most egregious of the movie's forced prison metaphors, because it blatantly (and obnoxiously) echoes War on Terror torture imagery of glimpsed in photos like the ones from Abu Ghraib and movies like Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve even raises the specter of waterboarding, as Keller has jerry-rigged Alex's pitch-black cell out of one of the house's bath/shower units, allowing allowing him to douse the kid in hot or cold water in order to coerce him into spilling everything he knows about where his daughter is. The self-congratulation one feels radiating from this sequence completely robs it of any resonance. Again, the power of Zero Dark Thirty lay in the matter-of-fact way it addressed the torture question. ("Did we torture? Hell, yes.") Prisoners purposely rubs it in our face for dramatic effect, not realizing -- or not caring -- how profoundly immature it's being.

With Villeneuve's attention almost exclusively tied up in the movie's (lack of) subtext, the actors are mostly left to their own devices. That's why Jackman treats every scene like it's an Oscar clip, making angry eyes at anyone entering his line of sight and grimacing like he's in the midst of an especially torturous workout to make his body Wolverine ready. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal goes in the opposite direction; after a string of performances that have thankfully brought him out of his brooding shell (most notably his lively turn as a more aggressive cop in End of Watch), he retreats into dull, blank-faced stoicism here. (The only distinguishable performance choice he makes for the character is Loki's penchant for blinking rapidly when confronted with a particularly problematic situation. And I mean, really rapidly. It's like a cross-dressing Bugs Bunny batting his eyes at Elmer Fudd.)

As an actors' showcase, Prisoners fails quite resolutely and as a procedural, it's not much better. There's a randomness to the way the investigation unfolds that stands in marked contrast to the methodical fact-by-fact reconstruction in Zodiac or even your average episode of vintage Law & Order. And while Villeneuve does demonstrate a certain proficiency at manufacturing tension when it counts, the aftermath of many of the key dramatically-charged encounters leaves you deflated rather than elated. Even worse, the climactic payoff to this protracted investigation is a total crock, one wholly dependent on coincidence and contrivance, not to mention the bad-thriller rule that when there are only four or five recognizable faces in the movie, the culprit is generally going to be the actor with the least amount of screentime upfront. (And without going into too much detail, let's just say that the director of the excellent 1988 Danish thriller The Vanishing should expect a royalty check to hit his mailbox sometime soon.) There is one way that Prisoners successfully recreates the prison experience: when you finally emerge from your two-and-a-half hour sentence watching this glum, overbearing movie, you'll relish the sweet taste of freedom, too.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

Keep up with Movies Without Pity on Facebook and Tumblr

Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.




Get the most of your experience.
Share the Snark!

See content relevant to you based on what your friends are reading and watching.

Share your activity with your friends to Facebook's News Feed, Timeline and Ticker.

Stay in Control: Delete any item from your activity that you choose not to share.



Movies Without Pity

March 2014


February 2014


January 2014


December 2013


November 2013


October 2013


September 2013


August 2013


July 2013


June 2013


May 2013


April 2013


March 2013


February 2013


January 2013


The Latest Activity On TwOP