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Thread: Prisoners

  1. #1
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    Prisoners

    “Prisoners” – directed by Denis Villeneuve

    *****Spoiler Alert*****

    Both excruciatingly painful to watch and thrilling at the same time, this suspense film is packed with powerful performances from start to finish – mostly from its two main stars – Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. It would be fair to say that any mention of the plot in its entirety would destroy many elements of surprise the film contains. Suffice to say, the film revolves around the kidnapping of two little girls from their suburban home one Thanksgiving afternoon and the journey the two families take to find them. This film reminded me at once of the Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” in its over construction of finding a mass murderer who first abducts his/her victims and then tortures them. The difference here is that this film focuses less on the mass murderer and more on the pain and suffering families experience in the aftermath of such crimes.

    Jake Gyllenhaal is a police investigator, Detective Loki, called in on the case from the start that evening. He helps to organize the search to find the girls and ultimately makes it his personal mission to carry out that objective. Hugh Jackman plays one of the girl’s fathers – Keller Dover. The film opens with Keller taking his son deer hunting. They bag a deer and serve it up on Thanksgiving Day with their neighbors and friends, Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). When the police investigator arrives, Keller’s son remembers an RV parked on the street. The RV is located and the driver brought in as a suspect. However during the interrogation, Loki discovers Alex Jones (Paul Dano) has the IQ of a ten year old. Upset because the police plan to release Jones, Keller kidnaps the boy, takes him to an abandon property and tortures the boy over a period of several weeks until he just a pulpy blood mass of flesh. Duplicitous with this affair is the father of the other girl, Franklin, who watches but does nothing as Keller repeatedly beats the boy to the brink of death. From here it would be fair to say that any further discussion of the plot would take away the mystery of the plot, which does not resolve entirely up to the very end of the film.

    We have seen other kidnap/abduction/murder films in the past – more recently the film “Mystic River” comes to mind as many of the elements in that film are in this one. Jackman’s Keller Dover is explosive and full of pent up anger that boils over into scenes that seem all too real. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as the ever questing and driven investigator is equally as powerful. Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve is here with his first English language film (I have not seen any of his previous work in Canada) and previously has won awards at Cannes and Berlin Film Festival. His 2010 film, “Incendies” was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards ceremony. Villeneuve has evoked strong emotions from his actors. Some of the violence is so real it must have unsettled the actors when the cameras stopped rolling. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband – 2012) has given us a plot and volatile dialogue where predicting the end is far from conclusive, even at the end of the film. The movie was shot entirely on location and the audience becomes almost claustrophobic when the camera wedges into narrow hallways or clutter bedrooms passing close to actors who often move in and out of focus.

    After a while, the film becomes a visceral experience, a gut wrenching ride through the maelstrom of anger, torment, and grief. We find it incomprehensible that someone could torture another human being with no remorse. At the same time, even stranger are the sympathies we develop as voyeurs to this madness in the hopes of finding the victims. The film is a test of endurance and the result is Oscar worthy nods to the two men who pull off the difficult task of convincing us they are in pain.
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  2. #2
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    Denis Villeneuve: PRISONERS (2013)


    JAKE GYLLENHAAL AND HUGH JACKMAN IN PRISONERS

    Muddled procedural derailed by an unhinged vigilante

    Set in a suburban, perpetually rainy part of Pennsylvania (though shot in Georgia), Prisoners focuses on the tragedy of two little girls, one white, the other African-American, who simultaneously disappear. Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde), the black girl, and Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich), the white girl, go missing after a Thanksgiving dinner where their two families have gathered to eat venison from the deer just killed by the teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) of the survivalist white dad Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Cynically one may say, two little girls, and of different races: a good setup. (Police generally are less helpful in pursuing disappearances of boys.)

    Suspicion turns to an RV Ralph saw the girls near before they disappeared. Its occupant, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is taken in for questioning by Detective Loti (Jake Gyllenhaal), already in charge of the case. But Alex, said to have only the mental capacity of a ten-year-old, has nothing to say, and there's no evidence in his RV, so he's released, despite Keller's insistence that he's guilty. This is where the plot and action are commandeered by the oddly named Keller Dover. He kidnaps the stringy-haired, pop-bottle-bespectacled, wispy-voiced Alex to hold him and torture him in a wrecked building Keller owns that was once occupied by his father. Keller drags the other father, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) over to witness what he's doing. Franklin is horrified. Terrence Howard as usual provides subtlety and sensitivity that are otherwise lacking, but he's overwhelmed by Jackman's wooden, one-note performance in a loud and violent role that dominates what now becomes a gruesome and violent picture. Birch is appalled, but lacks the will to oppose. Eventually the crime or crimes -- other child abductions are referred to -- find somewhat hokey solutions. But Prisoners is a cheat. It holds one's agonized attention for all of its excessive length, but it leaves one feeling empty. Let's see why.

    First, this is a washout as a police procedural. In each case it's by accident that the wrongdoers are found. If they are found. Details are provided at the end, but not all the loose ends are tied up. And the whole affair is haunted, because having Jake Gyllenhaal as the investigator -- with zodiac tattoos on his fingers, no less -- means Villeneuve has co-opted a better film. Jake's buttoned-up shirt collar and dark intense eyes bring back obvious memories of David Fincher's maniacally complex and tedious, ultimately perhaps brilliant Zodiac, in which Gyllenhaal memorably plays Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco cartoonist who turns into a tireless investigator. The twitchy, lifeless Loti's investigative efforts aren't remotely worthy of Zodiac and only disappoint more due to the inevitable comparison. It seems like Loti's function is less to detect the perpetrators and more to tamp down Keller's wild behavior and belatedly discover his too-easily-concealed wrongdoing. In the event, Loti is oddly given no life outside the investigation (he ate his Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant), not even a first name. The procedural leads to a drunken priest with a corpse in his basement he says is of a serial killer, but that goes nowhere. There's another suspect whom Loti tracks down a bit late. But a lot of time is spent on Keller Dover's gruesome torture (vividly shown). And there's no teamwork. Loti and his uncreatively named boss Captain O'Malley (Wayne Duvall) don't cooperate. They yell at each other, and trade "F-ings." Later a mishap (to put it nicely) occurs in an interrogation room that makes the cops look outrageously inept, while adding yet one more gruesome tableau.

    Second, the film is crude and monotonous. Dover is an opaque and tiresome character as written, relentlessly sticking to his unfortunate victim after better suspects turn up, a rage-aholic who turns back to drink after nine years sober and gulps his liquor from tall bottles; but Jackman's excess and lack of nuance make the character even more uninteresting. Keller's wife Grace (Maria Belo) meanwhile stays at home heavily sedated on tranquilizers, pretending to herself that her husband is helping the police. Everyone in this story begins to seem either dumb or dumbed-down. Even an ounce of intelligence, irony, or humor would have helped.

    We may say that the locations, especially the wet, cold exteriors -- it's continually raining, or briefly and suddenly snowing, throughout the week of the action -- are another, arguably more interesting character in the movie. The well-known cinematographer Roger Deakins knows how to make grayness glisten with a nice moody sheen. But this thick wet laying-on of atmosphere is yet another part of the film's heavy-handedness. And then we still have to deal with the clumsy editing, the haphazard and rambling action. The story is rife with non-sequiturs like the snakes, the mazes and the drunken priest. There is a tired repetitiousness about the constant trips back and forth in Keller's pickup truck to his personal Abu Gharib. Hints at significance abound. Keller and Loti both repeat slogans about expecting the worst, and mentions of God thread in and out of the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski to hint of some grand message that never, perhaps happily, comes. Guzikowski's only previous credit is Contraband , starring Mark Wahlberg, a producer here. That was an enjoyably chaotic and violent B-picture. Here his focus on a more "significant" and tragic story makes it much more clear that Guzikowski isn't melding his ingredients into a solid whole.

    What does it mean to say a young man has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old? A ten-year-old can be a genius. IQ is not a function of age. Alex is one of Dano's over-stylized performances: a simpering wimp. A better movie would make this role less simplistic. But then look at Jackman. And look at Viola Davis (as Terrence Howard's wife), a fine actress given too little to do. A cast of experienced actors, well-known Hollywood names, is wasted, misused, miscast. Gyllenhaal is the most memorable, but it's better to remember him as Graysmith.

    Sometimes a new movie by a director makes one question the merit of earlier ones. Prisoners is a thriller so overwrought and misguided it casts doubt on the French Canadian Villeneuve's acclaimed previous feature, Incendies (ND/NF 2011). The switch to Hollywood and English also may not have been for the best. The ponderous and pretentious manner of Prisoners, which lacks the scale or complexity of Demme's 35-minutes-shorter Lambs or Eastwood' 15-minutes-shorter s Mystic River (Dennis Lehane's sense of community and place are missing), makes one remember that while Incendies seemed impressive -- its subject, the civil war in Lebanon and its impact on a Lebanese-Canadian family, was layered and resonant -- it was also a little too humorless, relentless and full of itself. Same thing here. Avoid.

    Prisoners, 153 mins., debuted at Telluride (and Toronto), and was released in the US 20 Sept. 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-18-2014 at 01:11 AM.

  3. #3
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    You certainly took offense to many elements. However, I believe you're in the minority on this one Chris. Metacritic (your favorite barometer) gave it a 73 (Rottentomatoes Cream was higher). That means between three quarters to nearly 86% (RT) like the film.

    You make some valid points and comparisons. You did like Roger Deakins cinematography (Skyfall and other films). However, I believe you missed the boat here on the focus of the film, which goes to the heart of concepts like torture - what would we tolerate if it was our child? What would we do? Would we condone torture? I believe Jackman's character is driven to torture and in the end feels he can never let his victim go, no matter the outcome. I believe he would have killed the boy and disposed of his body as what was necessary. As a survivalist, this came out in the plot - he would do whatever was necessary for the survival of his family, even if that meant sacrificing his own life (which his wife reinforces near the end). Notice the reaction of the child in the wheelchair. There was no great outpouring of love for the investigator, no big thank you, no hug, no tears, no expression of gratitude. I almost felt a sense of resentment as she thought the investigator had not done enough to "prevent" the crime from happening. The film's resolution, the level of acting, the intricacy of the script, the plot twist reveal, and the camera work make too many positives for such a hostile review on your part.

    I could start quoting other reviews but I am certain you'll find a scarce negative one there that supports your point of view, no doubt. But for every negative one you find, I can find four that support my reaction to this film. I believe you've cut it short, but I'm not exactly sure why because your review is almost hostile.
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    I don't believe it is a coincidence that you, I, and Tony Scott came away from this film and immediate thought about "Zodiak," "Silence of the Lambs," and "Mystic River." Perhaps it was something about the setting, the level of acting or the feel of ambience. Whatever reason, I believe Scott wrote a brilliant review:

    http://movies.nytimes.com/2013/09/20...haal.html?_r=0
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    No, I didn't like PRISONERS one bit. I'm not always in the majority on movies, and I don't want to be. That PRISONERS associates itself with well-known movies doesn't make it a good movie.

    There were two high profile new movies this weekend, the other being Ron Howard's RUSH. I haven't reviewed RUSH but I liked it a lot better than PRISONERS. It's a bit simplistic with its battle of the edifyingly contrasted sports hero titans, but it's fun, Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth both do good jobs as the leads, and in its way it's a very well-made film. I'd recommend it to anybody who likes the subject matter. I can't recommend PRISONERS to anybody. I would warn anybody against it, and for the ladies and anyone with sensitivities it's absolutely to be avoided.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-23-2013 at 05:48 AM.

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    I believe this is one of those movies where we will have to politely disagree on our take. While I most certainly admire your intellect and artistic ability, I think you've missed the intent on this one, Chris. But we could go into a mindless debate, going back and forth.

    I would hardly call the film "uplifting" and as to my spelling errors, I'm not alone in that regard (we both type fast and hit submit).

    In the past, you've agreed with Tony Scott and others on the positive side of that list (such as David Denby, although I did not see the Village Voice review, perhaps it was more to your side of the argument).

    What each man calls art can often enrage another. We talked about artists like Andres Serrano and others who have evoked strong reactions in the art community and in the public. Seems "gay images, anything against Jesus or Mohammed, abortion, take your pick" can elicit anger and even resentment, calling for the artist's head.

    As you know I am a strong voice against violence in cinema and have for a long time voices that opinion on this site when we debated "Django Unchained" last Christmas (among others). I squirmed during this viewing of "Prisoners." However, I believe there are many elements to this work that deserve merit. You do not. Judging on your last two posts, I doubt any negotiator will bring us together on this one. I'll let you have the final say.
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    I removed my criticisms of your remarks on my review and apologize for them. It was late. There's no reason to be personal in these exchanges.

    Of course sometimes we come down on the side of various reviewers.

    I believe I did say earlier that Villeneuve has skills. I certainly acknowledge that in my review of his INCENDIES, though as I say, I'm questioning that a bit now and if you read the earlier review, I had questions then too. But there are one or two action scenes in INCENDIES, particularly one of a battle surrounding a bus, that really impressed me.

    I meant to give you the last word. But I think it's polite to respond if one can.

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