Friday, September 20, 2013

Confessions, Lies, Moral Dilemmas & Unclean Hands

Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki and Hugh Jackman as Keller in Denis Villeneuve's drama "Prisoners".  Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, September 20, 2013

Denis Villeneuve's cold, bleak "Prisoners", an intense endurance test, mines the moral dilemmas and ethics of two sets of parents after the disappearance of their daughters in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Conyers.  In the woods of this quiet bastion a deer will be shot.  A son's rite of passage will be validated.  The Lord's Prayer will be uttered.  All will have unclean hands.

After a Thanksgiving family dinner Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) can't find their daughters.  A lone, odd detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has no evidence to hold Alex (Paul Dano), a mysterious suspect with a low I.Q.  Keller takes the law into his own hands, torturing Alex, whom he's convinced has something to do with his daughter's abduction.  A timid Franklin knows this is wrong, but, ala the "good people" of "Compliance" he aids and abets his friend.  What do the mothers of these missing girls do?  At best they're indifferent here.  Keller's wife Grace (Maria Bello), like much of America, is doped up on pills.  Franklin's genteel wife Nancy (Viola Davis) is compassionate yet compliant.  Strangely, or as a perfect set-up for the film's events, Keller seems to be the only parent outwardly, passionately and vocally concerned that his child is missing.

"Prisoners" is an absorbing procedural with a patient European pace.  Some will say, like this review itself, that it is too long -- and it is -- but the length is necessary to unravel, or further entangle, its troubling threads.  Mr. Villeneuve focuses on the complexities stemming from a reaction to the primal fear of losing a child.  What would you do?  Would you become Keller?  I don't know what I'd do.  "Prisoners" however, has a clear message: that when we are affected by violence or vengeance we are imprisoned as predators, prey or both.  Violence begets violence.  Revenge begets revenge.  Does it make a difference whether we know a suspect isn't the perpetrator before Keller does?  Does this make the audience's discomfort any worse?  Better?  I think Mr. Villeneuve could have withheld information much longer from the audience before tipping his hand.

That said, the most unsettling, skin-crawling aspect of "Prisoners" is its sketches of mazes, a key factor surviving a litany of red herrings.  These creepy mazes are repeatedly glimpsed.  There's little explanation of them.  In fairness "Prisoners" isn't about riddles or problem-solving.  The film is about what happens to people when their loved ones are taken from them and police do little with the law they have.  This theme isn't new but in a year of vastly disappointing Hollywood films Mr. Villeneuve gives us food for thought.  That, at least, is refreshing.  "Prisoners" is not "Taken" (nor "Taken 2" for that matter), nor is it as entertaining as either film.

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins does a superb job photographing Conyers as a town, capturing the layers of its people in stunning, careful detail.  Mr. Deakins brings a gray, damp visual tone to "Prisoners", effectively displaying the film's mood and psychology.  Mr. Deakins contrasts this icy surface with a stark underbelly that is a cauldron of blood, depravity, desperation and darkness.

Beyond its compelling atmosphere and moral quandaries though, "Prisoners" offers little from a character perspective.  Each character lacks complexity beyond their cause.  They act one-dimensionally, assigned to their contradiction without appreciable development of the gray areas within themselves or other parts of their lives, making them one-note characters as people and for the story.  How, for example, do Keller and Grace as a couple handle their daughter's disappearance?  Do they talk to each other?  How is their marriage affected?  How about Nancy and Franklin's?  How do they treat each other?  There's an attenuation and remoteness between Keller's actions and these events and issues that feels false.

"Prisoners" is mostly absent on these marital issues and engagements, shying from them, and instead investing copious time in a largely uninteresting volley of encounters between Keller and Loki.  There's a lack of depth and exploration in what I think are the film's most crucial relationships, sacrificed for the sake of conventional drama.  More in-depth interplay between the spouses of the missing children would have bolstered "Prisoners" as an intriguing moral play.  Films like "In The Bedroom" and "Ordinary People" sparked these types of relationships and interactions, ones that were riveting, fascinating and powerful.

As confident and sure-handed as "Prisoners" is it isn't bold enough to go the distance.  The fine films "A History Of Violence" and "Zodiac" (which Ms. Bello and Mr. Gyllenhaal starred in respectively) and Bruno Dumont's spellbinding "Humanite" made their characters far more provocative, charged and achingly human.  To an extent it takes certain actors who can master material of this kind.  Actors like Viggo Mortensen ("A History Of Violence") or Tilda Swinton ("The Deep End") would not only bring this ugly brew of human frailty and combustion to life but wouldn't make their acting nearly as obvious as many of the players in "Prisoners" do. 

In "Prisoners" faith is added to the swamps of human cruelty but stands on shaky ground as its own character.  Keller is a man of faith (we don't know which.)  The element of faith is exploited with the introduction of a priest, apparently a device for indulging audience attention: he's a loose thread that's never tied.  Maybe that's the point: some things just can't be explained, yet "Prisoners" glosses some characters as window dressing.  I felt I was being played by the director: some of the predicaments and characters seemed too easy to guess at.  A whistle will be heard during the film's climax.  It may as well have been a dog whistle calling out the film's narrative tactics.

Some of "Prisoners", though well-crafted at times by writer Aaron Guzikowski, is felt by the audience but not adroitly acted.  "Prisoners" is intuited but underwhelmingly nuanced.  The film shades some of its characters but leaves the rest alienated and isolated as if in completely separate and disparate movies.  Nancy and Grace (Nancy Grace?) could have been given more bite, depth, independence and a core as characters.

Each actor, with the exception of Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Davis, both very good here, is paralyzed as a stock type.  Actually, so is Mr. Gyllenhaal to a degree -- but he finds the equilibrium as an actor to make Loki a credible source of frustration, tension and ethical blurring.  Mr. Gyllenhaal does this better as a detective character than Mr. Jackman does as a parent character.  Mr. Jackman's flawed, rash Keller is pure cast-iron rage, which, given his crisis, is understandable but nauseatingly dislikable.  It is in such characters that Mr. Villeneuve's best moments come as he taps into an audience member's litmus test for tolerating obviously heinous behavior the way Michael Haneke does.

Keller goes much further than the assailants in this film, and that's the film's focus.  How much should he be rewarded for his actions?  As a man of faith, defined as the evidence of things unseen, Keller sees only blood, and "Prisoners" suggests he knows better.  This type of squeamish, disturbing and uncomfortable truth is similar to the type of events debated in last year's Kathryn Bigelow drama "Zero Dark Thirty", a film criticized by some as showcasing and glorifying torture and accused of asserting that torture worked to get results in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Further, while "Zero Dark" was a muscular precision film directed by a woman, the staunchly male architecture of "Prisoners" forces its women into retreat as largely passive, near-anemic beings.

The success or failure of "Prisoners" as a story (and a film) may largely rest upon how much "slack" audiences are willing to give Keller.  He's instantly presented as a meat-eating man driven by carnivorous pursuits and impulses.  His way of making Alex talk yields little fruit.  The film showcases Keller and renders its own judgments upon him in a way Ms. Bigelow's stellar film does not on Jason Clarke's CIA character. 

A sideline question of "Prisoners" is, do we indulge those violent fantasies or wishes within us?  And if we do, is it for pleasure?  For a sense of liberation?  Revenge?  Desire?  Gratification?  Sadism?  The truth is, as humans beings we do indulge them, for all of the above reasons and more.  (Extremely violent video games like "Grand Theft Auto" have been around for over ten years, and the latest, G.T.A. 5, recently sold $800 million worth of copies in its first week in America.)  There's no accident that in "Prisoners" Keller is shown at the start encouraging his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) to kill.  The opening is a calm, tranquil scene, full of peace yet brimming with vulnerability and malice.  The unseemly ritual of violence being passed from father to son is disturbing, and real, even more so considering this week's events in Washington, D.C.  Will Ralph do what Keller does if his daughter or son goes missing? 

Ultimately "Prisoners", a worthwhile experience, required stronger acting and more substantive character interaction among its key parental figures.  Too much of this brooding film invests in tortures and agonies without more probing context and deeper ambiguity.  One of the director's oft-used motifs -- shots of the back of Mr. Gyllenhaal's head and shoulders -- are hollow and pretentious.  Other weaknesses include its cardboard villains, especially after much endeavor is spent delving into the moral fiber of a protagonist.  "Prisoners", a suspenseful and multisided film, stacks its deck.  The film's mothers -- those arguably most affected by missing children, some 800,000 of whom go missing annually in America (FBI statistics released in 2000) -- are sidelined in it. 
Also with: Melissa Leo, Wayne Duvall, David Dastmalchian, Zoe Borde, Kyla Drew Simmons, Len Cariou.

"Prisoners" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
  The film's running time is two hours and 33 minutes. 

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