Denis Villeneuve // 2013 // 153 mins
After spending a Thanksgiving meal together, the lives of two families are devastated when their youngest daughters disappear later that day. With no witnesses and a suspicious RV being the only possible clue it is left up to two men to try and locate the girls before it's too late. The unconventional Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to continue his perfect streak of solved cases as a series of dead ends and confusing clues lead him on a seemingly endless trail of suspects and exposes the conflict between his passionate drive to save the girls and the restrictive rules of the job that he has to stick to. Taking matters into his own hands Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), father to one of the missing children, abducts the man he believes to be responsible for the kidnapping and takes extreme measures to make him reveal what he knows.
The sole motivation for Prisoners seems to be a desire to make a crime-thriller to sit proudly among the likes of Se7en, Zodiac and The Silence of the Lambs, and this effort is quite transparent. There is an all-star cast of accomplished actors, a controversial subject matter and an overlong, stretched-out-for-every-ounce-of-drama plot, all of which point towards this being a hollow piece of awards-bait. The trio of thrillers that I listed all provide complex, well-structured plots that take the viewer on gripping journeys through the darkest regions of human nature. Prisoners attempts to replicate that formula but in the process stumbles over itself as, to be blunt, there is just too much going on. Writer Aaron Guzikowski packs in more red herrings than he knows what to do with and this results in a great deal of the events and plot feeling like an unnecessary waste of time once the climax finally kicks in.
The conclusion provides some answers and reveals how a great number of the events and suspects are connected, but this all comes across as far to convenient and lazily written. Big revelations are made through throwaway pieces of dialogue and can be missed entirely if you are not following intently with a notepad to keep track of every last detail and connection. By far the most disappointingly weak aspect of this screenplay is the motivation for the kidnapping, which is laughable in it's crappiness. I actually had to check Wikipedia afterwards to be sure I had heard correctly. For a film so desperate to create a complex, labyrinthine (forgive me) plot this motivation comes across as too easy, too shallow, too dull.
Prisoners most impressive feat is that it actually manages to get some impressive performances from it's cast, in spite of lost every character being an underwritten, one-note cliché. Jake Gyllenhaal battles terrible dialogue and clumsy drama to create an interesting character who succeeded in keeping my attention throughout. Loki's determination to solve the case and save the girls is admirable and despite some really awful judgement calls he Gyllenhaal manages to make him the most engaging character in the film. Scene-stealer Viola Davis is also remarkable in a much smaller role and manages to leave a lasting impression despite having only one major scene to do so, and boy does she do it. Paul Dano continues to play creepy frighteningly well, while Melissa Leo seems bored or uninspired through most of her scenes. Providing a compulsory insight into the different shades of grief are Maria Bello, who cries, sobs, sleeps and cries through her role, and Hugh Jackman, who clearly saw this as Oscar-bait but overestimated how affecting his role would be. For a film that is centred around two families losing their children, it is a startlingly cold representation of such an event that distances the viewer and does not allow for much emotional investment.
Thanks to an excellent score and some truly exquisite cinematography Prisoners can boast an impressive atmosphere that stands strong throughout the uneven two and a half hour narrative. A surprising central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal maintains interest but unfortunately the film buckles under it's own desperate endeavour for greatness. Trimming some of the excess plot and focusing in on the emotional journey of the characters could have made this a much more accessible, successful film. As it stands, Prisoners is too concerned with being great on paper to ever bother being great in practice.