There are two reasons for featuring what is ostensibly a Hollywood movie on this blog (apart from its surprising success and controversial readings by critics). First, it’s the product of a creative team in which several of the principal crew members (director, composer, cinematographer, designers etc.) are non-American. Secondly, its length (153 mins) and outline story of a double abduction of young girls in a small town at Thanksgiving suggests possible links to the current cycle of ‘Nordic Noir’ films and long-form television narratives.
Writer Aaron Guzikowski is best known for the Hollywood remake of the Icelandic film Reykyavik-Rotterdam as Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg – and Wahlberg is one of the exec producers of this film. Prisoners was a script that was well known around Hollywood for several years with various attempts to get it into production before Denis Villeneuve was attached. He is the Québécois director of Incendies (France-Canada 2010), one of our ‘films of the year’ on this blog. It’s been a remarkable year for Villeneuve with two major releases, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal – Enemy (Canada-Spain 2013) is the second.
So does Prisoners look and feel any different from a standard Hollywood thriller of this type? The opening scene of a deer shoot in the snow seems like a nod towards The Deerhunter in establishing the Pennsylvania setting but from then on the narrative becomes quite claustrophobic (partly because of the decision to shoot in 1:1.85 rather than ‘Scope). The long running-time and the focus on only a limited number of characters allows the story to develop slowly and in this sense it feels quite different to a Danish serial like Forbrydelsen (The Killing). With outdoor scenes dominated by extreme weather (heavy rain and slush) photographed by Roger Deakins and with a mystery element, the ‘feel’ seemed to me closer to the Icelandic crime thriller Jar City.
Outline (no spoilers)
Two families, the Dovers and the Birches are spending Thanksgiving Day together but alarm bells ring when the two youngest children go missing and are treated as victims of an abduction. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) leads the hunt for them and is extremely aggressive towards police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his arrest of the chief suspect (Paul Dano), a man with obvious learning difficulties. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is much more reluctant than Dover to take the law into his own hands. The events which follow include several mistakes in the investigation and questionable behaviour by those involved. The ending of the film is ambiguous in one crucial respect.
I found the film to be always engaging and the running-time was not a problem. I can see that there are some plotting issues and possible implausibilities but that’s common for films of this kind. Overall I thought that Villeneuve handled his actors and used the locations very effectively to create tension and to maintain audience involvement. The main weakness of the script was that the ‘wives and mothers’ (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) had little to do (like Terrence Howard). By contrast, Melissa Leo as the ‘aunt’ of the Paul Dano character was extremely effective. But the other two older Dover and Birch children were also fairly redundant as characters.
The central narrative offers us two major male characters played by Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman has the ‘shouty’ role which necessarily requires a strong physical presence. Gyllenhaal plays Loki as an intense and obsessive man and uses what I can only describe as a method approach. Festooned in tattoos and with swept back gelled hair, a tightly-buttoned shirt and a compulsive blinking habit he is a striking but mostly quietly-spoken character. There are some particularly unhelpful remarks by the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the paper’s video review show about the acting in the film. I think film students would find it useful to compare the two central performances.
None of the characters in the film is given a ‘backstory’. We don’t know why Loki behaves as he does. We just know he has a reputation for solving every case. All we know about Dover is that he is a self-employed handyman with a basement filled with stores in the event of a disaster. I don’t think we know what Birch does and the women don’t seem to have jobs – so it isn’t clear how the families are supported. In an early exchange, Dover tells his son that there isn’t enough income for a second vehicle (Dover drives a pick-up). What all this suggests is that we are meant to read the narrative at a much more symbolic level and audiences have certainly tried to do this. Variety has published a piece comparing the film’s representation of torture as a means of obtaining information unfavourably in a comparison with Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve handles these scenes well, I think. He can shock an audience while still being restrained. The IMDB bulletin board carries a debate about the film’s use of religious imagery. My knowledge of small town Pennsylvania is not very extensive but I think that the ‘community’ is intended to be Catholic and there are various quotes from The Lord’s Prayer etc. The film’s title is open to interpretation. Who are the ‘prisoners’? What kind of incarceration is it?
To return to the American/global sense of the narrative, I would say that there are enough similar Hollywood thrillers to make the film feel familiar. The film is technically a Hollywood product since the production company Alcon Entertainment have a distribution outlet in North America on a long term basis via Warner Bros. Outside North America, however, media sales are handled by Summit and the UK distributor is the Canadian conglomerate eOne. The success of the film has come during a very slack period with no blockbuster releases and it will be interesting to see if it maintains its No 1 position in the UK chart this weekend with some strong competition. In the meantime, I’d recommend the film mainly for Gyllenhaal’s performance (and Villeneuve’s direction). I’m really looking forward to Enemy.