An hour into this 2 1/2 hour long film, I’m getting bored, and that’s generally not a good sign in a revenge thriller.
I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for Prisoners at one point or another, but recently a video blog I follow mentioned this flick. It follows a maybe somewhat played out story, but the addition of Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and frickin’ Viola Davis among others made it seem like it would go on to do greater things. Slicker. More thoughtful. Director Denis Villeneuve does go on to make Arrival, after all, and though I would’ve toned down the melodramatic somberness that sometimes bogs down the clever storytelling, I thought it was a pretty good film.
I can’t say I’ve seen any other Villeneuve films off the top of my head, but Prisoners takes the somber mood and coloring of Arrival and multiplies it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the story to make it great.
The premise is, two families get together for Thanksgiving and their children (who miraculously happen to be of equal ages, just sayin’) stumble across a van. Both families have a little girl, and the two sneak off together a little later to go back to the first family’s house. They never come back. From there, you can probably guess. The police get involved, Jake Gyllenhal shows up as the perfect yet hardboiled detective who eats alone on Thanksgiving, the families are desperate and distressed.
(Also, side note: how do these people even know each other? Why are they friends other than for plot? There’s literally zero backstory and it really bothers me. I can’t tell if they actually have anything to do with one another. I’ve never been that chummy with my neighbors.)
(Second side note: what’s up with Gyllenhaal’s frickin’ incompetent boss? Also also: what detective has a 100% solved case rate? None, that’s what. What a completely useless piece of dialogue.)
And yet these decent actors are plopped down into these one-dimensional, stereotypical roles. Maria Bello becomes the emotional incoherent mother. Jackman’s persona is straightforward and easily stapled together: white, working class, religious, patriotic, and Masculine with a capital M. And the further the film progresses, the less and less we hear from the other (black) family. Literally, the voices of the only women and people of color in the film are covered by Gyllenhaal’s frankly kind of lazy performance as the on-the-case cop, and Jackman’s yelling and punching. Terrance Howard’s character, who is the father in the Birch family, is initially seen refusing to participate when Jackman’s character, Dover, kidnaps the principle subject in the case. The next time we flash back to them, Birch is silently and willing holding the guy up while Dover beats the shit out of him. Where is the autonomy? Where is the decision making? There literally is none, because the only character we are supposed to be concerned with is Hugh Jackman’s. What a waste of poor Viola Davis. One of the most contrived bits of dialogue I’ve seen in a while was when Dover is trying to comfort his wife and she sobs, “You were supposed to protect us!”
Wow. Didn’t you just feel that threat to your masculinity kick in? Time to go reclaim your virility by literally kidnapping the guy who may or may not have kidnapped your children.
For all the positive reviews I’ve seen for this film, I’m pretty sure I’ve watched this exact thing before, just in B-movie format.
Oh well, there ya go. A crappy film with lesser known actors (made three years before Prisoners, just so we’re clear), where a couple whose only child is abducted decide to take matters into their own hands by torturing the prime suspect.
I realize this isn’t the same, because Hugh Jackman doesn’t know for sure that the guy he abducts is the killer, nor do we, the audience, know whether or not the girls are still alive. And the twist at the end.
But I mean, at least in The Tortured, the woman has a significant amount of agency. And she, like, makes decisions and has actual conversations with words and time spent on screen.
It’s Dover’s masculinity and the things that that implies in American society that cause him to become a torturer, a monstrous un-empathetic being on a level similar to that of the people who kidnapped his daughter. The values of strength, action, decisiveness, paternalistic protectiveness. Is that what the film is trying to say? Given the flat female characters, I think not.
Even when these people are doing things, they’re straight up crazy. Who goes along with this?
Reviews say this is a heart-pounding, profound drama with an underlying commentary about terrorism or modern America or something like that. I can’t say I watched the same movie, maybe because I skipped through ten minute segments in the second half and filled the rest in with the synopsis. Or maybe because a B-movie with some convenient caricatures filled by big names is what makes for Oscar-bait material. Jackman is better in Les Miserables. If you’re going to spend 2 1/2 hours with him, it may as well be heart-wrenching a a good way.