the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

Minimum Security Confinement

 “Prisoners” is a crime drama that has a running time of 153 minutes. That is three minutes longer than Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. The trailer showed a taught drama surrounding the abduction of two young girls during a Thanksgiving dinner.  My gut told me the story might have been spun in less time than covering the Civil War.... Then again Kurosawa’s crime film “High and Low” took over two hours. Maybe Denis Villeneuve, the director, has the chops to put meat on this bone... Unfortunately he doesn’t.  One of the key elements of suspense movies is.... suspense. Sounds obvious but not to Mr. Villeneuve.

According to IMBD Mr. Villeneuve, “Abandoned an interest in entomology to pursue his love of filmmaking”.  This was revealing. This insect connection explained a great deal regarding Villeneuve’s oeuvre.  Years ago I spent an afternoon in a meadow with an entomologist who explained the Monarch butterflies love of milkweed. From a dramatic POV the scientist had me for the first 15 minutes... but, being a philistine, the second hour was, despite good weather, excruciating.   Villeneuve really surprised... but not in the way he intended.  Imagine making a dramatic feature about the most terrifying experience anyone could imagine, the kidnapping of your child, and the result being... boring. What is even more startling is that the film touches on an interesting premise. What befalls people who are gripped by loss and terror? They abandon their humanity and become as hideous as their tormentor. This theme has been explored on many occasions probably most successfully in Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden”. Villeneuve  and Aaron Guzikowski,  the writer, drop the ball. The film endlessly meanders between crime drama, character study and sociological profile.

“Prisoners” opens with a deer being shot. This is followed by an overbearing, unhinged father played by Hugh Jackman, congratulating his son for the kill as they drive to their modest suburban home. He is a contractor who is under financial stress.... but clearly ‘there is more to the story’. The rest of the family consists of a stay-at-home wife and a young daughter.  They walk over to join their upscale neighbors for a Thanksgiving meal. It is interesting that these two families would be close given the class and racial divide in the US. The other family is made up of an African American Veterinarian and her possibly stay-at-home husband. Their children are the same age. It would have been interesting to know how these families bonded but Villeneuve has bigger fish to fry... or should say I say, a turkey to cook. We witness the meal and TV watching, a brief walk with the kids.... an encounter a strange van...  back to TV....  the couples tell stories.... the Vets husband takes out a trumpet - which he can’t play (ha ha ha)...  Are you on the edge of your seat? I wasn’t. The audience can be thankful noone said “Let’s play Yahtzee” - that might have been another five minutes of torment. Maybe North American suburban family rituals are interesting to residents of Burma, the Sudan or Micronesia. I think I can represent my 300 million fellow moviegoers and say that ennui was the prevailing mood in the theater . So we are at the 15 or 20 minute mark: AND THEN THE TWO LITTLE GIRLS GO MISSING. Okay we’re finally reaching cruising altitude for the story. But remember the would-be entomologist has to illustrate the point. There is a five minute sequence of: “Are the girls in the basement? - show scene of everyone looking in basement. Maybe the girls are outside? - show everyone outside.  Maybe the girls went to the other house? Show father walking back to his house.... Are you on the edge of your seat? I wasn’t. In fact I felt like screaming: “Would someone f***king call the police!!!!” 

One might counter that a ‘slow start’ is key for setting the cement of the story as in “Psycho”. In that thriller Janet Leigh doesn’t meet Norman till about half an hour in. But the back story of a longtime employee embezzling money adds an erie tension to the scene PRIOR to the madman’s appearance. I have a grave doubt about many things in this world... but here is something of which I am absolutely certain: Villeneuve is no Hitchcock. “Prisoners” opening half hour is laborious fluff. The snippets of exposition might have been added into the opening sequences of Jake Gyllenhaal managing the investigation.  The main take-away is Hugh Jackman is nuts. Well that is completely apparent in his first encounter with the detective. In fact this is hit hard in the first sequence after the deer is downed. Jackman seemed to channeling Capt. Ahab from the jump.  The audience definitely felt for the son as the deer, bleeding in the bed of the pickup, clearly had the better end of the deal on the ride home. I thought all  Hollywood product was audience tested? Note to producers - try taking a scissors to the first 40 minutes and see how the crowd reacts. It is startling that the distributors didn’t put their foot down as a film of  this length complicates the timing of the evening showings. Now that’s a mystery worth investigating.

Back to the scene of the crime. The character of the lead investigator raised the bar.  Gyllenhaal is a solid actor, as were the rest of the cast, but his performance stood out. So finally we’re reaching cruising altitude. Well the bug man forces us to abandon the ole detective and go back to looney daddy. He feels the audience really needs to explore how loose the screw is... Answer: very loose. But not in a way that is dramatically interesting. Once again the idea of evil begetting evil is compelling. The problem is the revenge demon fails to travel very far in Jackman. Watching crazy go crazy is not as interesting as witnessing good go bad. The African American neighbor and wife’s actions are interesting. These people are not inherently pathological. Their badness is rooted in the terror of Milgram’s work on authority figures or Zimardo’s Stanford Prison experiment. The gulf between a ‘normal’ person and a Nazi sadist is uncomfortably close.  Unfortunately Villeneuve focuses on the bad apple. Spending so much time watching Jackman’s sadism leads little time to explore the Vet and her husband or Jake’s subdued rage. Eventually Jake catches revenge fever which leads to assaulting an innocent suspect who commits suicide with the detective's weapon. This would seem a ‘fireable’ offense (no pun intended). Not in this film.  Demotion? Suspension? Weapon confiscated? Nope. The boss gives him a dressing down AND KEEPS HIM ON THE CASE. Chalk it up to artistic license to carry?

This incident leads to the second moment in the film which prompted a desire to scream at the screen. In one of the many convoluted plot twists Jake goes suspect-hunting and bursts into the home of a known sex offender, an old alcoholic priest.  The man is three sheets to the wind so Jake decides to look around. There is  a mummified corpse in the basement which has a distinctive pendent wrapped around its neck.... WHICH MATCHES THE SAME PATTERN AS THE DRAWING THE SUSPECT MADE BEFORE HE SHOT HIMSELF.  Everyone within 500 miles of the theater makes the connection except..... the detective himself. You know the one who, according to some clumsy exposition, ALWAYS solves his cases.  But then as Jake angrily smashes his computer a photograph of the corpse falls to the floor allowing him to make the connection.  In classic Villeneuve fashion it takes about three minutes of screen time before the ‘oh wow’ moment. I mean you wouldn’t want anyone to think the whole thing was too contrived, right?  He has to ‘wait’ to see it... get it?  I was secretly yelling “over there! no, just look! there! THE DRAWING MATCHES THE PENDANT”.  It would be unkind to give away too many storyline details suffice to say that the mummy held many secrets - maybe a movie about the pre-mummy man might have been more interesting. A question for the sphinx?

The tragedy of this film is that there were solid industry craftsman hitting their marks but the key writer/director slots were undecided about what to pursue thematically.  The answer was to tackle everything; which led to a movie about nothing. The trailer hinted at a straightforward cop drama centered around finding the abducted girl. There is a certain amount of linear crime narrative but the creative teams meanders down different roads. It becomes a film about being corrupted by rage but also hints at being a character study of the blue-collar contractor and the detective.  Jackman’s father turns out to have killed himself after a career as a prison guard. The contractor guards this childhood home as a shrine. The detective lets slip he was abused by priests as a child and has distinctive tattoos on his fingers and neck. What is the audience to do with these snippets of biography? How do they relate to the unfolding of the story. In short who are these people? There is a strange opaqueness in this film which ironically gives a tremendous amount of screen time to all these principles. The ever-haunted contractor and the detective seem to be borrowed from other larger character studies and dropped in the middle of this pedestrian crime thriller. The villain is revealed in the end and once again there is a sense of what might have been.... who was this person? The reveal is that they were motivated to take children to spite God and turn people into vengeful demons. The explanation, which would betray too much of the plot, seems forced. Many people experience profound grief but fail to morph into serial child killers. The desire to pair down the film is mixed with an urge to amp up the focus on a particular character. As it is, there is too much combined with not enough.... leaving the audience as adrift as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern witnessing Hamlet. You have a front row seat to all the action but you have no idea what is REALLY going on.  Unlike Shakespeare’s hapless duo you won’t end up executed... but you might wish back those 153 minutes.

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