Sometimes it’s fun to speculate on where a movie idea comes from. Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, may have occurred to someone while watching a live-action cartoon like Taken. That person may have wondered, what if a movie were made on this subject that had moral ambiguity at its center?
The result is the kind of movie that tries so hard to be serious, but its genre origins keep popping up like weeds through cement. This is an earnest, noble attempt at a grand film event, but it never outclasses its base subject.
That subject is the child abduction. Robert McKee, in his book Story, writes that the death of a child is one of the most shameless plot points a screenwriter can use, but child abduction may be worse. It always plays out the same–the child or children playing, this time at a cozy Thanksgiving dinner shared by neighbors. The initial “where are the kids?,” until panic builds and then the police are called in. We even get the line, “Do you have kids, Detective?” which may as well be spoken to the audience, because we dare not think that this isn’t important.
I don’t know if a truly good movie has been made about a child kidnapping, and lord knows there have been many of them, all designed to tug at the heartstrings in a naked and manipulative way. Prisoners, though it is far more intelligent than most, is only a so-so movie, elevated by an intelligent approach to the cathartic revenge fantasy of films like Taken, as well as superb photography by Roger Deakins.
The Thanksgiving dinner between Hugh Jackman, as a contractor who is a few ticks away from becoming a survivalist nut, and his wife Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard and his wife, Viola Davis, is right out of a commercial (that they are interracial friends is no accident, methinks). Each has a girl of about six who vanishes, last seen playing around a decrepit RV (in this day and age, it’s hard to believe that the girls would actually accept an invitation to hop in).
Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as the dedicated detective. We don’t know anything about him other than that he has a tattoo on his neck and eats Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant. He is the first on the scene when the suspicious RV is found, the driver being a mentally-challenged young man played by Paul Dano.
There is no evidence to hold Dano, which enrages Jackman. He is convinced that Dano knows where his daughter is, and takes matters into his own hands, enlisting Howard as a reluctant accomplice. As this unfolds, we are led to believe that there is another suspect, which makes Jackman’s actions even more egregiously villainous than they already are.
The film ends with a twist that some may find easy to spot. I certainly had an inkling, because I noticed a key clue that the entire police force missed until Gyllenhaal discovers it accidentally. I was also unclear about some things, maybe because my hearing is not what it was–what exactly led Gyllenhaal to the church, where he makes a grisly discovery? What was the the one suspect’s connection to Dano? The script has so many balls in the air that I think a few of them dropped to the ground.
But wow does this movie look good. I was wondering who shot it–the movie has no opening credits–and when I saw the name Roger Deakins I smiled to myself. The film is set in some decaying industrial town–Pennsylvania, I think–with empty shopping malls and a perpetually gray sky. It’s almost always raining or snowing, and a scene late in the film at night, involving a rusted out old Trans Am, is breathtaking.
The director is Denis Villenueve, who made the very fine Incendies. For his Hollywood pay day he seems determined to take a very familiar topic and turn it into something cinematic, and I applaud the effort. I just can’t say the same about the result.
My grade for Prisoners: C+.