I’m not typically a genre purist. I don’t believe an artist should be constrained to single genres, and I have a great admiration for movies that blur the lines to create something fresh. There are two very different, but very good movies in Prisoners that, in this case, don’t exactly result in synergy. The first is about two families dealing with the disappearance of their daughters. It’s haunting, gut-wrenching, and hyper-realistic. To me, this is the stuff of reality. The second is about the mysterious detective trying to catch the abductor. It’s creepy, riveting, and grotesque. This is the stuff of crime thrillers. Frankly, each one would be nearly perfect on its own. But together, in the form of Prisoners, they feel like a cheap blow below the belt.
Anna’s parents, played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, attend Thanksgiving dinner at Joy’s parents’, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. When the two girls don’t return from playing outside, and it starts to rain, and a mysterious RV is spotted, the families go into panic mode. Days later, with the authorities on the case 24/7 and vigils being held for the missing girls, the families continue mourning and start resigning to the bad news that’s likely to come. But Keller Dover (Jackman) never really leaves panic mode. There was one suspect–the child-like, catatonic owner of the RV (Paul Dano)–but the cops had to let him go. So Keller does what any frustrated father who’s built like Wolverine would do and takes matters into his own hands. Next thing you know, he’s leading Terrence Howard into an abandoned apartment complex where the suspect is chained to a sink and badly beaten.
The first half of Prisoners is so realistic that it demands an intense personal investment. Presented with this horrifying, yet possible, scenario, we must ask ourselves, How would I react? When do I call the police? Who do I blame? What would I do to the man who did it? Up until Prisoners, Director Denis Villeneuve’s filmography was populated with devastating dramas that asked these kinds of challenging questions, so the film’s first half feels right at home. Villeneuve directs with a slow and steady build and employs a perfectly believable cast. Each family member simmers beneath the surface, just barely holding it together during these trying times rather than chewing up the scenery. Then there’s Roger Deakins, truly the secret weapon in any production. His cinematography finds beauty in the quiet Pennsylvania town, highlighting details that bring the story home, yet lighting them from the most sinister angles. Everyone on screen might be crying, but damn does he make it look good.
When we’re first introduced to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, we’re desperate for relief, though maybe not that desperate. With his deep-set, sleepless eyes and neck-and-finger tattoos, we might think this guy took the girls. He’s stoic and creepy (who isn’t in this movie), and yet his desire to solve the case quickly wins us over. By the time the families have devolved into depression and torture, well, Loki ends up being the movie’s real hero figure. If anyone’s going to save us from this cripplingly sad movie, it’s him. Gyllenhaal’s performance is another piece of evidence in the case for his renaissance, along with Villeneuve’s followup, Enemy, and Nightcrawler. Appropriate, then, that Loki reminds us of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in True Detective, the start of the McConaissance. Loki is a locked box filled with all the horrible things he’s seen on the job, holding them back with that blinking tick of his. He’s ever mysterious, but we prefer him that way.
As writer Aaron Guzikowski sends Prisoners down a decidedly thriller road, we’re along for the ride primarily because Loki is driving. But the further it strays from the realistic first half, barreling towards the completely unrealistic revelation behind the abduction, the cheaper it feels to an audience that just wanted to experience hope. The villain turns out to be almost cartoonish, with his doodling and muttering and hand-wringing, mostly because he’s juxtaposed against stark realism (actually, he would fit perfectly into True Detective). This dichotomy especially frustrates because, at a 150 minute run time, one could almost split the movie in half and have two perfect films. Evidently, both Villeneuve and Guzikowski succeeded in their attempts to engage, excite, and sadden us. If only they worked together to make one movie that rewarded us.