Movie review by Greg Carlson
Like Baran bo Odar’s “The Silence,” theatrically released this year in the United States, Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” deploys a large ensemble cast and interwoven plot threads involving victims, police detectives, perpetrators, and the bereaved to examine moral relativism in a stomach-turning crime involving children. Both movies follow the rules of the procedural, but “The Silence” emerges as the superior film based on its director’s deliberate objectivity in exploring the range of individual motives and personalities. Villeneuve, whose previous feature “Incendies” was selected to represent Canada as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, struggles to find much room for nuance in Aaron Guzikowski’s sprawling screenplay.
In a weird inversion of the typical direction of the biblical allusion, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter whose love for his daughter is so great, he is willing to do harm to an individual the police have questioned and released. On a crisp Thanksgiving Day, Dover’s young child disappears from her own neighborhood along with the daughter of family friends. The chief suspect, a creepy, monosyllabic manchild named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), drives an old RV that the girls were seen climbing on, but following a dramatic arrest, no trace of the missing children can be found in the vehicle or the home of Alex’s grim aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo, distractingly made up to look heavier and older).
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is assigned to handle the case, but the absence of any forensic link between Jones and the lost girls forces the officer to pursue other leads. Unsatisfied with Loki and driven by a sense of urgency, Dover takes matters into his own hands, abducting and imprisoning Jones, the single action that should drive the story’s thorniest dilemma: would you become a monster to stop a monster? That’s a question addressed in many movies – see Ji-woon Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” for a particularly riveting and graphic example – but “Prisoners” can’t quite rise to the challenge. One scene with Viola Davis alludes to a deeper exploration of thought experiments on the ethics of torture, but the direction it points toward is not pursued.
While the levels of contemplative sophistication are running on empty, “Prisoners” is still worth seeing for the remarkable cinematography by superb image-maker Roger Deakins. The longtime collaborator of the Coens has been Oscar-nominated without a win a staggering ten times, but his work is always award worthy. In “Prisoners,” the texture and sense of scale in composition rendered by Deakins transcend the shortcomings of the drama’s pretend thoughtfulness, and the movie is a visual feast of practical lighting that caresses the outdoors and imagines the boundaries of asphalt and woods and daytime and nighttime with startling clarity.
The outlandish twists and turns in “Prisoners” include a crimson herring so red it’s positively bloody, and Villeneuve wastes far too much time digging in that particular rabbit hole. Gyllenhaal’s Loki is deprived of any meaningful explanation of his pained demeanor. His policeman is a blank page and we are given no glimpse into any kind of life outside his relentless quest to maintain a perfect record of solutions. The potential of seeing Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard process their walking nightmare is a promise unfulfilled, as Bello disappears into catatonia and Jackman takes center stage.