"I take orders from the Octoboss."


tn_prisonersPRISONERS is a crime mystery elevated to near-epic status by its patience and taste. It has intense performances, especially by leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, but also supporting players Paul Dano, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo. It has gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography of grey, rainy Georgia suburbs that looks just like my neck of the woods. Serial killer central. It takes its time, doesn’t drum up fake excitement with bombastic music. It has the kind of careful, deliberate camerawork and pacing we associate with Kubrick, or at least Fincher. Smart directors with so much cinema in their blood they don’t know how to shoot anything without transcending the perceived limitations of its genre.
I haven’t seen anything else by this director to know if he’s one of those. He’s Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian whose movie INCENDIES was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar two years ago. I’ll have to keep an eye on him I guess. The writer is Aaron Guzikowski, who did CONTRABAND, a Mark Wahlberg movie I skipped. Based on their reputations then that seems like a pretty good highbrow/lowbrow mix there, and I think they came up with a movie worthy of more attention than it has received.

I think because of a couple of Fincher’s movies there’s this idea that there’s something deep and philosophical to find in stories of killers and the men who obsess over finding them. Didn’t that Nietzsche guy say something about something something THE ABYSS something serial killers? And isn’t Nietzsche supposed to be, like, some kind of deep guy? With depth? I believe so, but I’m not sure there’s a whole lot there.

That’s not a complaint. To me what we have here is an impressive enough feat, a kidnapping thriller where the family feels a little more real than usual, the mystery a little more hopeless (and therefore suspenseful), the moral compromises taken by the understandably desperate protagonists more involved and messy. I think this is also a political parable, but it doesn’t have to be seen that way for it to be interesting, which is how it should be.

mp_prisonersIt’s a story of two families, the dads Keller (Jackman) and Franklin (Howard) best friends since childhood. They both have wives (Bello and Davis), teenagers and young daughters, and they all have Thanksgiving together. The different age groups end up in different parts of the house, as happens, and at some point they realize that the youngest ones wandered off somewhere and didn’t come back. The only clue is that the older kids saw a dirty RV parked nearby earlier, and now it’s gone.

Later the police find the RV, and the driver Alex Jones (no relation) (Dano) tries to run, but he turns out to have the IQ of a 10 year old and no trace of the kids in his vehicle.

Keller understandably has a problem with the cops letting him go. He thinks that’s the guy. He’s also pretty paranoid, a survivalist, and macho. This is another impressive performance by Jackman, maybe the most complex I’ve seen him do. He’s playing a heartbroken asshole. He’s the worst person in the family, but still sympathetic. He decides to kidnap Alex Jones and imprison him in an abandoned apartment building he owns. He keeps him there for days, torturing him, trying to get information, convinced it’s in there somewhere.

The worst part of the movie is that the lead detective (Gyllenhaal) is named “Detective Loki,” but the best part is his character. No one ever tells us about his past, but he has all these tattoos, and a blinking tic. He’s solved every case he’s had and it seems to have taken a toll. He might look like some burnt out David Ayer character, but he doesn’t play it that way. He spends much of the movie being professional, absorbing Keller’s aggression, saying “I understand what you’re saying” and “I hear what you’re saying, sir” and trying to avoid speaking the inevitable “but” that leads to the next part of that sentence. He gets called to investigate claims that his experience tells him are dead ends (“I heard my daughter in her room”), his eyes tell us that it’s kinda sad to him, but at times almost funny, and that he’s willing to play along to make them feel better. Other times he’s alone so we get his honest reactions – “Shit” he says when he’s in his car and sees Keller coming to talk to him.

Gyllenhaal is one of those actors who’s good at playing dim-witted characters, and it tricks me into underestimating him. He’s better than I tend to remember. I mean, he even surprised me in that stupid PRINCE OF PERSIA movie, but this is the kind of performance that really makes me reconsider him and think of him as the type of actor where a movie might be worth checking out just because he’s in it.

It’s a good mystery, not too obvious or formulaic for me. Since it doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood thriller, and since it has the same actor who starred in ZODIAC, I wasn’t even 100% sure if the mystery would be resolved. Detective Loki stumbles into shit he can’t believe, crazy shit that seems like too much to be going on in this one area, but that doesn’t immediately answer the important question, which is “Where are those girls?” And little things come up that make you keep questioning your assumptions about every character, but without an obvious red herring scent to them.

At one point it goes from quasi-realism to events so strange that I started to question if it was a dream sequence, but I think it’s a successful (if not entirely believable) progression into the surreal. Maybe that’s because the idea of the kidnapping of the kidnapping suspect is already a little crazy. Once we’ve accept that we’ve accepted that the story is not going to stay entirely grounded. The script has explanations for why it’s believed that the kidg got spooked and took off, and how they hide him. And there’s this expanding bubble of guilt as Keller brings Franklin, and then Franklin brings his wife, and those two say that they know it’s wrong, but then fail to stop it.

The movie never announces a political agenda, but it’s easy to see the War on Terror parallels. They lock up this guy to question him. They know it’s not legal, but time is running out. They beat him and question him, threaten him, put a bag over his head, deprive him of light, torture him with water, and keep doing it despite no sign that it’s helping in any way. Franklin and his wife immediately know it’s wrong, they ask Keller if he’s lost his mind, but then they give in to his logic anyway, because they’re too scared to let the kid go and then be wrong. It’s already done, they say. But (SPOILER) the kid doesn’t give them any helpful information. In fact, it’s only the process of freeing him (and informing his aunt of his whereabouts) that the truth is accidentally discovered.

See, that’s how you do it, KILLING THEM SOFTLY. You do it softly. Then it’s better politics and better storytelling. Put the sledgehammer down. You coulda been a contender.

Don’t watch PRISONERS for the politics. Watch it to see a good mystery thriller, and you get some thought provoking as a bonus.

* * *


Here’s a hilarious story I heard before seeing the movie, but it’s best to hear afterwards ’cause it could’ve been a giveaway. Lee Daniels talked on KCRW’s The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell about when he was attached to the script, before he did THE BUTLER. He really wanted to work with Oprah Winfrey, and he told her she was going to be playing “the serial killer.” She didn’t want to but he told her to trust him and read the script. He laughs that not only did reading the script not convince Oprah, but when he told the producers he was trying to get her they fired him from the movie. He loved how it turned out without him or Oprah, though. I’m sure if he had done it it would’ve been much sillier and crasser but interesting in different ways.

One great and outlandish part of the movie is what Loki finds when he knocks on the child molester priest’s door. I love his look of exasperation when he discovers the hidden room. Like he’s not up for such a discovery, and also kinda disappointed that the Father is so bad at covering his tracks. That he finds this dead body that seemingly has nothing to do with the kidnapping seems like too much of a coincidence, like how there’s all those serial killers in the area in I SAW THE DEVIL. But of course it’s a little easier to swallow when you realize that all this stuff is connected.

I like that the priest learned of this guy’s killings through confession, and when Keller locks up Alex Jones he ends up building a little box around him and speaking to him through a little hole, a sort of confession booth by accident. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s an interesting parallel.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that this kid who Keller’s trying to make confess is actually a victim of the confessor that the priest killed. Another victim just like his own daughter. Bonus irony layer: you could argue that torturing this innocent victim did the trick. They didn’t get any information out of him, but the discovery of Keller’s vigilante crime leads to the uncovering of the “aunt’s” crime, not only saving Keller’s daughter but reuniting Alex with his actual parents. Ah shit, war on kidnapping, why are you so morally complex?

Thanks to Jason Humptulips for convincing me to give this one a chance. Good call

This entry was posted on Friday, January 24th, 2014 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Prisoners”

  1. Man, I totally agree with you here. I saw it first by myself and was really impressed, but then I took my girlfriend to see it, and was very surprised to find it had gotten even better. Shit has layers

  2. Yeah, this is a good one, plus a great review as usual. PRISONERS’s big a-ha! mystery aspect got me good, and I do love admitting that because it seems to happen so rarely (especially if you’re not Paul). My adherence to a tabula rasa approach to filmgoing pays off best with films like this and
    MYSTIC RIVER (although I called the big whodunit reveal early on, the narrative still surprised me & punched me in the gut something vicious),
    PRESUMED INNOCENT (fucking great book, too),
    and most of the new PBS Sherlock series (A SCANDAL IN BELGRAVIA being the best).

    I’m sure there are a few others (and lots of books), but I have to space out my viewings/readings since there’s nothing that releases the happy juices in my brain (sorry about the esoteric scientific lingo) like a good mystery that leaves me guessing til the very end. I’d hate to overindulge and dilute that euphoria.

  3. I guess I need to give this one another watch. Everyone talked it up so much that I went in with sky-high expectations and was a bit disappointed by the movie. I still thought it was quite good, though.

  4. I’ve waited a while for your thoughts on Prisoners, Vern, as it was one of my top movies of last year. I especially thought Jackman and Gyllenhaal were superb. Both deserved Oscar nominations, in my opinion. At the very least, poor Hugh deserves one by now.

  5. They kinda dropped the whole “solving cases” thing this season of Sherlock though.

    Anyhoo I like Prisoners a lot, ridiculously dark and bleak looking film. There’s some dumb shit in it though. I thought the whole Killer Reveals Their Motives scene was pretty Scooby Do. I thought it was lame that Loki never has backup, sort of broke the immersion. I like my procedurals to be super dry and realistic and shouldn’t he have like, another cop with him when he crawls into the basement, etc?

    But I really love the atmosphere and the acting and the fucking very last scene, when the very moment a certain character realizes/notices something, it ends, without the need to show you what he did with the knowledge. I always took it to mean that was just the last unfinished business and we don’t need a logistical coda showing you how he got him out but people have pointed out that maybe he just fucking leaves him there. Seems a little extreme to me but I like that the movie let’s people run wild with it a little bit.

    I went home and watched Zodiac for the first time since its release after seeing this and holy shit, THAT’S a fucking movie. Prisoners is pretty good but it’s no Zodiac.

  6. While I find the manner at which Sherlock arrives at his deductions endlessly surprising, I tend to figure out the solutions to his mysteries faster than he does. I don’t think that makes me a better detective. It’s just that I know I’m watching an artificially constructed fiction in which certain outcomes are far more likely based on the law of narrative economy, whereas Sherlock is laboring under the delusion that he exists in a world of free will, coincidence, chaos, and happenstance, all of which must be parsed before a rational conclusion can be made. He’s got a much tougher row to hoe than I do.

    I seem to have a habit of derailing movie discussions with talk of nerd-friendly TV, though, so since I have not seen PRISONERS, I will shut up now.

  7. Detective Loki is the worst movie cop I’ve seen in a LONG time.

  8. I still remember my jaw dropping the floor at how smart the cops who showed up in Panic Room were.

  9. I thought Loki is the best movie cop I’ve seen in a LONG time.

  10. Best movie cop ever? Samurai Cop.

  11. Mouth – nope, I didn’t see this one’s ending coming. Should have, but didn’t.

    I put this in the “good but flawed” section of my magnum-opus on the forums, and I stand by that. My biggest problem – apart from that it’s a procedural that seems to know little to nothing about actual police procedure, which is really off-putting for someone like me who watches a lot of procedurals – is that, after such a great start introducing us to the characters, “Prisoners” seems to fall into the common trap of having the plot seem to “drive” the characters, rather than the other way around. Even Jackman’s character arc – which is fairly extreme – seems more “plot-convenient” than anything else, at least by the end of the movie. It works much better earlier on.

    Still, an interesting movie, and one that I’d definitely recommend if you like a good mystery/morality tale. Just don’t expect it to be a flawless masterpiece (or anything close to that).

  12. Loki’s a great character, not necessarily a convincing cop though.

    All The President’s Men is another bomb procedural.

    Have you guys checked out True Detective yet? Twin Peaks set in Louisiana with nihilism instead of melodrama.

  13. Oh and Mouth – the book of “Presumed Innocent” – which I really like, my favorite Turow book would probably be “Personal Injuries” but “Presumed Innocent” I can read again and again – is SO much better than the film. I thought it was a really poor adaptation actually. In the film a certain character doesn’t realise whodunnit until the final reel, which pretty much means that character’s actions up until that point make very little sense.

    And no, I didn’t know who did it when I first read the book either.

    “The Usual Suspects”, on the other hand… now THAT’S how to do a reveal.

  14. Vern: INCENDIES is worth checking out. The plot hinges on a bit of a gimmick, but it’s still really good stuff, not unlike Haneke’s CACHE. A buddy refers to it as “BABEL without the hand-wringing.” INCENDIES would have been a good film to transition you back into narrative film after watching ART OF KILLING.

  15. I enjoyed the movie and thought Gyllenhaal was particularly good. This movie made me go back and watch Zodiac.

    One thing I never truly bought was Jackman’s rabid dog like zeal in getting Dano to confess. Dano had a mind of a 10 yo old and there was no evidence in his camper so it seemed implausible that he had anything to do with it given the facts known at the time. At times, it felt like his character was acting that way because the plot necessitated it. I don’t know it just felt a little off. Good movie nonetheless.

  16. Gyllenhaal was fucking great in this and Deakin’s photography was top notch but otherwise I thought this was mediocre to actually pretty bad. Honestly, the amount of plot contrivances and cliches and laboured symbolism and inorganic narrative turns was just absurd and it really irks me that high-minded, solemn adult dramas like this seem to get away with shit that “lesser” genre films are regularly crucified for.

  17. Good movie, but I have a SPOILER question:

    Was the mannequin-abducting-snake-owning-break-into-houses-and-steal-clothes guy one of the original kids who were/was abducted by the original snake owner guy? I get that he was part of the puzzle in an overall mystery narrative sense, but I missed the actual connection.

    EDIT: Oh, okay, according to WIkipedia he was, in fact, one of the abducted kids who apparently survived. I guess I don’t really get how some of the kids could have actually lived and just never told anyone about it, but I suspended my disbelief enough to enjoy the movie.

    Vern, I think you should watch & review THE ICEMAN, starring Michael Shannon

  18. Randy’s right, by the way. PRISONERS somehow gets better on a 2nd watch. Layers, man.

    Christof’s right about the clothesbox-snake guy, too. How did he never reveal his upbringing and how did he, like, own a house or manage a lease? Did he have a driver’s license? Yeah, his house is dirty, so it’s not like he’s the most responsible resident, which makes sense, but wait… how did Paul Dano have an RV license?

    In conclusion, stay the fuck out of central Pennsylvania. James Carville (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD) once said (approximately), “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.” Maybe it’s much worse than that. Bunch of creepy kidnappers, drunken killer priests, and DMV employees who don’t mind granting driving rights to the mentally challenged.

  19. The name “Detective Loki” was one red herring too many for me. It made me expect a twist where he was in on it, or something: Loki, as we all know, is the trickster god of Norse mythology, and it’s such an unnecessarily odd name for a character, I just felt like there had to be something more to it than there was. Otherwise it’s just the thing an 11-year-old would name the coolest character in his/her crime story. It distracted me the entire time and then it disappointed me when it was over. If they had to give him a ridiculous, improbable, Norse-Mythology-rooted name, I kind of wish he had been named “Detective Odin” instead, because of his (spoiler) eye injury at the end. Maybe that was in the original draft.

  20. If you wished a whole season of The Killing was only 2.5 episodes long (and actually good), then Prisoners is for you – it’s abnormally long for such as “small” movie, but it’s chock full of information and incident, twists and turns and great characters. I’d strangely put it alongside Transformers 4 as a by-product of the phenomenon of binge-watching and the way it wires our brains to handle so much info. I predict more movies will be like them in the future, except unlike TF4, this one is actually good.

    Jackman is so good here (and in Les Miserables) that I’m honestly kind of glad he’s going to be done with Wolverine soon so he can concentrate on roles that are actually challenging and rewarding to him (I love the guy but I felt him, Fassbender, and Lawrence were totally sleepwalking through Xmen: DOFP) Gyllenhall has never been an actor that I felt strongly about one way or another, but his character is so unusual and “complete” here that this really felt almost like it was based off of an ex-cop’s memoirs or something (his blinking tic, weird tattoos, and speaking and dressing style totally seem like he’s doing an impression of someone we’ve never seen before, if that makes any sense.)

    This is going to sound weird but I wonder, if like TV, that this movie might be better watched at home w/out one’s full attention. I mean, it’s not like I was vaccuuming or doing laundry or whatever, but I do feel if I saw this in the theatre, the mystery would have been WAY too easy to solve. *SPOILERS* I mean, the movie explicitly shows us there’s a serial killer/kidnapper who was active 26 years ago, while there’s only one suspect in the entire cast who fits that age. It constantly takes us on side quests and diversions to the priest’s house and that other body and SPOILER Dano’s mother, etc…where it’s like “wait, what the hell does this have to do with anything?” but then we find out it all had to do with the main case and it’s honestly kind of a miracle the ending still surprised me (and apparently some of you guys too) with how blatantly it dangles clues in front of us. That’s some confident film-making right there, and I can’t wait to see Villeneuve’s next.

  21. I liked Villeneuve’s new one SICARIO a whole lot. It’s deliberately paced liked PRISONERS but never boring. He can be a bit heavy handed with his metaphors, and this has a spoken-out-loud one from a villain toward the end, but that’s a minor complaint. That same scene also has a great will he/won’t he? moment with Del Toro, that boosted my faith in directors who think we’re big enough to handle uncompromising adult cinema. It was really quite refreshing.

  22. How are the action scenes in Sicario?

  23. The action, when it came, was clear and unfussy. It reminded me a lot of ZERO DARK THIRTY in that the mission was mostly unfolding through the eyes of one woman(Blunt, who is excellent), and Villeneuve drops you right in the middle of it.

  24. You had me at “Emily Blunt”. I’ll keep a look-out for that one.

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