[20 September 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s positioning itself as an early Awards Season entry. It has a premise that inspires both curiosity and shock. It has a wealth of wonderful actors in front of the camera, a talented foreign filmmaker behind it and a sense of style and cinematography that keeps the mood dark, barren, and depressing. Yet for all its attributes, its artistic aims and thematic concerns, Prisoners is a preposterous mess. It’s 153 minutes of mindless moralizing lumped in with a slick, Se7en inspired police procedural.
The main story sees two families - one overseen by Christian survivalist Hugh Jackman and his wife Maria Bello, the other featuring Terrence Howard and Viola Davis - whose elementary school age daughters go missing on Thanksgiving. All leads point to a meek manchild played by Paul Dano, though dedicated police detective Jake Gyllenhaal can’t seem to find a legal connection. Once Dano is released from custody, Jackman takes justice into his own hands, torturing the simpleton to ‘discover the truth.’ In the meantime, Gyllenhaal stumbles (literally) over enough evidence to suggest this prime suspect had nothing to do with the crime.
Then things get goofy and overly complicated from here. In fact, to discuss the various plot gaffs and story slights contained in Prisoners’ preposterous narrative, one has to initiate a MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT. As a matter of fact, it would be an even safer bet to suggest that you avoid this piece all together until you’ve actually watched the film itself. Then, once satisfied (or saddened, or shocked) you can return to these five points we’re about to make here and understand our growing distaste for this pointless, meandering movie.
Problem #1 - The Premise
As stated before, the story centers on the Dovers and the Birchs. They live in a solemn, silent suburb somewhere in Pennsylvania. They have two cute as a button daughters who are mysteriously abducted. Even though they “typically” don’t let the little ones out without their teenage siblings as chaperones, this time, it was okay to do so. Previously, we see a shady looking RV riding around the area, and the girls even play on said vehicle before being removed by said adolescents. Naturally, everyone is devastated and Keller is especially ripe for some Fundamentalist payback on the named suspect, Dano’s Alex Jones. But when he kidnaps the man, ties him up in an old apartment building the Dovers own, and starts smacking the crap out of him for information, two concepts emerge, neither of which are dealt with by the film.
(1) If Keller is beating an innocent man, then no amount of pummeling will give him the leads he needs. As a result, the lack of a legitimate purpose will turn our hero into a villain, and the movie never even remotely comes close to addressing this concept. Instead, it’s stuck in the moral question of taking the law into one’s own hands…again, never really addressed outright. (2) If Alex is indeed guilty, or at the very least, part of the crime, then whatever Keller does is completely justified (at least to the movie audience invested in the ongoing social worship of children). Therefore, we should really be cheering over every punch landed, relishing every experiment with freezing cold/scalding hot water. Instead, the film tries to sell it right down the middle, and as a result, misses the mark.
Problem #2 - The Police
Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki, a determined police officer with a past (he hints that he understands the horrors of being molested as a child) and a keen eye for solving EVERY SINGLE CASE HE’S EVER WORKED ON. That’s important information to know, since the rest of the film is going to try like Hell to destroy such a track record. First, there is the Chief, who constantly acts like he couldn’t be bothered to enforce the laws in his own town. He chides Loki about his targeting of Alex Jones, scoffs at any suggestion that the man should be kept in protective custody, and even refuses to assign an unmarked squad car to keep tabs on the guy. After he goes missing (the argument is he skipped town), no one suspects the Dovers or the Birchs (even though Keller confronts Jones in the police parking lot and swears he “confessed” to him) and no one watches them either. It’s only after some absent minded comment by Mrs. Dover about her husband “helping with the search” does Loki become invested, and by then, the movie is mostly over.
Problem #3 - The Investigation and Search
Let’s face it, after seeing how the police chief acts here, more or less telling Detective Loki to “forget” the prime suspect because there’s no hard evidence against him, it’s no wonder the concurrent searches of his RV and his home are so slipshod. Well, the vehicle does get a thorough once over, and nothing of significance is found, but that’s beside the point. We hear that the same happens at the home of his Aunt (played by Melissa Leo). And yet, there, right out in the middle of the property for all to see, is a weird looking shed and an old muscle car that clearly can still be driven. Are either of these potential crime scenes searched?
We never find out, but clearly the answer is NO! If they had been, someone would have easily discovered the warped piece of plywood under the vehicle covering up a hole filled with… KIDS TOYS, BONES, AND OTHER CRIME ARTIFACTS. Any cop will tell you - if you have an RV linked to the scene, and then said vehicle is linked to the Aunt’s property, that land would be scoured like a greasy frying pan. Instead, NO ONE sees the piece of wood until the VERY END of the movie. Right. And let’s not forget the Aunt’s collection of medical supplies, drugged grape juice, and other child abduction aids. Why even ask for a search warrant?
Problem #4 - The Red Herring
Halfway through the film, just as we are dead convinced that this entire case will turn into one big CSI clusterfuck, along comes “Bobby Taylor” (David Dastmalchian), a suspicious looking guy acting suspiciously at a candlelight vigil. Loki immediately senses his sleazy sinister urges, and a foot chase ensues. Later, when caught, Taylor’s house is searched and, inside, we find numerous maze doodles (which are ignored until conveniently remember, like the medallion worn by a corpse found in the basement of a pedophilic priest), a severed pig’s head in the sink, dozens of trunks filled with snakes and bloody children’s clothes, and enough circumstantial froufrou to fill a good 45 minutes of meaningless runtime. Indeed, Taylor’s character is included to do little except keep Loki off the scent and distract everyone from what Keller is doing to Alex Jones in that old apartment building. Eventually, Bobby gives us a bit of background before eating a bullet.
Problem #5 - The Ending
So it turns out that Paul Dano’s Alex Jones is actually a kidnapping victim, raised by Melissa Leo’s “Aunt” who was, with her dead husband (the body found in the priest’s crawlspace), responsible for all the child abductions in the area. Part of some insane plot “against God,” she forces Alex to “recruit” kids, his childlike brain the result of too many LSD spiked beverages when he was one of their captives. When Joy escapes (don’t ask…), she lets Keller know that he was “there” while she was in captivity. Since the only places he’s been are his house, the apartment building, and Alex Jones’ residence, he puts 1/3 and 1/3 together and takes off to save the day. Doesn’t bother telling the police. Doesn’t bother informing anyone in authority or his family that Joy has more or less nailed the locale. Instead, he runs off in a huff, confronts Leo, and is himself forced into the hole under the car. Apparently, there are many things this survivalist will do, but one thing he won’t is own a bullet proof vest.
Loki eventually makes it to the Aunt’s, confronts and kills her, and takes little Anna to the hospital where she is saved. TIME PASSES (this is key) and we then see Mrs. Dover defend her husband (who is still missing - since he’s down in the hole under the car, remember?). Loki returns at night to see the CSI crew shutting things down. The ground is too “frozen” to dig, so they will have to “wait.” Loki, in the silence, thinks he hears something. The audience then hears it as well. Keller is still alive, under the car, using a child’s toy whistle (which played some part in the pre-kidnapping narrative) to call out for help. Loki realizes something. Jump cut to the film’s titles. The End.
That’s Prisoners in a nutshell. Just as the movie is starting to “make sense,” just as it is going to show what happens, to put all the pieces in place, it…just…ends. Instead of going all Mystic River and/or Silence of the Lambs on us, the filmmakers could have made a truly intense movie out of the narrative’s basic premise - what happens when a vengeful father finds out that, he too, has become the same as the criminal he’s castigating. Put another way, have the first hour of the film be about Keller and his need for revenge. Then SOLVE the case. Now, make the man face what he did. Have a trial. Put him on public display so that both sides, pro and con, can have their say. Sure, this is not the intent of this otherwise moody thriller, but it would make for a much better exploration of the themes suggested. And a much better movie.