Saturday, September 21, 2013

Captive Audience: PRISONERS

The tension in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners slowly descends like a ton of bricks arriving methodically in the pit of your stomach. It’s nominally a thriller, but the thrill is more of a sick dread that creeps and lingers. Shots are still, the soundtrack is hushed, and the pace unhurried. When the central question the mystery turns upon is the whereabouts of two missing little girls, a sense of patience is the worst, ominous development. This film – eventually stretching out over two hours and thirty minutes of screen time – is not in a hurry. It makes you sit and wonder as the parents fret and mourn and the police go down the checklist, calling out searches, knocking on doors, chasing down the few leads they can scrounge up.

At the start, all is normal. We meet two families, friends and neighbors who are sharing a Thanksgiving meal. While the parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) chat after dinner, their respective teens (Dylan Minnette and Zoe Soul) watch TV, and the two little girls (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) play outside. Later, when they can’t be found, one of the teens notices that a camper parked outside a nearby house has vanished as well. It’s the only clue they have. A detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in to start the investigation. Each day that passes, the chances of finding the girls at all, let alone alive, diminishes. The stakes couldn’t be any clearer, or more severe. The events are told clearly, with compact images that tell a story of crisply and quickly escalating tension.

What follows is a work of strong acting and filmmaking, ready to dig around in the darkness of its subject matter without a hint of prurient interest. It’s humorless, dour, and unrelentingly gray. Unlike the typical abduction-revenge template, the film does not devolve into mindless vigilantism and easy answers. In fact, it struggles with those questions, playing around in a darker, marginally more realistic register. Bello, Howard, and Davis are convincing in the details of feeling helpless and mournful, hoping against hope that the little girls will be found safe and alive. But they fall to the sideline somewhat as Jackman’s frustrated rage, clenched jaw and steely eyes, and Gyllenhaal’s anxious professionalism, complete with a blinking nervous tic, take center stage. This is no head-smashing revenge fantasy a la Taken no matter how many times Jackman shouts, “Where’s my daughter?” It’s icy and slow, full of frustrating dead ends.

The guy in the camper (Paul Dano) is caught and detained for questioning, but is let go when no evidence is found connecting him to the disappearance. Frustrated, Jackman howls at the police and roughs up the man, who looks and behaves odd enough that it’s hard for him to seem innocent, even if he is. The script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) becomes an intricate web of clues and plot turns at times as cumbersome as it is satisfying in a grim, intensely felt procedural. The plot has all the pulpy makings of a revenge thriller, a missing-person mystery, but in the seriousness of intent and high quality shine of every aspect of the production, it avoids the easy pleasures of the genre, thwarting catharsis by sticking close to wounded performances of frustrated characters kept for long stretches without a clue. Prisoners becomes a title that takes on metaphoric weight for every character, every one a prisoner of duty, pride, mourning, circumstance.

Sequences of great dread find dim light pouring through dark doorways, flashlights illuminating crime scenes. There’s specificity and a spare hard-bitten beauty to the imagery that’s tactile. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots crisp, chilly images that crackle with late autumn shivers. I could almost feel the dampness of an early December drizzle, smell the decaying leaves crusted over with a tentative layer of frost, sense the chill as a misting rain shifts into snow flurries. There’s a scene late in the film involving a car speeding through traffic during a late night rainstorm that sends stoplights, headlights, cop lights, and raindrops glowing and smearing in frames that are as tense and gorgeous as any I’ve seen on film this year. It’s a clear case of expert craftsmanship elevating a screenplay that in lesser hands could’ve fallen into flabbiness and silliness.

The story takes on more weight than it can handle. Coincidences pile up and by the end it’s nearly too much. It resolves all-too neatly, falling into Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters by the end. But it’s so well made in every other respect, it’s better than it is. It’s a movie that starts great and ends merely solid. The intensity and consistency of Villeneuve’s approach, the tough performances, and steady framing keep the story engaging and absorbing. I simply needed to see how the mystery resolved, even if by the end it was a matter of encroaching impatience mixing with genuine curiosity on my part. This is an overwhelmingly tense, deliberately paced thriller that’s ultimately a bit more familiar than the foreboding opening and morally muddy middle suggests. It’s not as good as it looks, but it’s more than good enough, judging by the gasps rolling through the theater at key twists, to hold an audience captive the entire time.

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