Friday, August 15, 2014

PRISONERS took no prisoners, and paid the price

Back in September 2013, a challenging drama called Prisoners.  It was fairly well-reviewed and had reasonable commercial success, but by the time of the award season it had been swamped by such inferior material as American Hustle.  The only Academy nomination it received (and thoroughly deserved) was for Roger Deakins's cinematography, and although Aaron Guzikowski's sceenplay, written on spec, won a number of several script competitions, including The Black List and The Blue Cat, it got very little attention when prizes were dispensed for actual films.

What happened?

Before going any further, I need to say that you should see this film.  It is too visually and morally complex to adequately describe or summarize in a blog post like this, and it will repay your time.  Put it in your queue or get it from your library or borrow it from a friend, clear out an evening and watch this, preferably not alone.  And if you haven't seen director Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Incendies, go back and see that as well.  My guess is that like me, you will try and see all of Mr. Villeneuve's films in future.

Back to my question.  First, Prisoners is a godawful title.  Yes, it makes sense in a philosophical metaphorical way AFTER you've seen the film and had some time to think about it.  But most people don't want to see a movie about prisoners, unless they're American GIs breaking out of WWII prisoner camps.  Moreover, it is a confusing description in a literal level.  I am not going to exhibit hubris sufficient to propose alternate titles, but I know this one is absolutely terrible and had to have contributed to the general audience indifference.

Second, the film was marketed as a thriller.  In fact, it begins by employing thriller tropes, but by 45 minutes in, it is clear we are in deeper waters than the typical Liam Neeson movie.  (Admittedly there is a thriller-style twist ending, and the only hint I will give you is to pay close attention to the casting.)

Overall, Prisoners feels more like a neo-noir than a thriller, especially in its look, as in this clip.

More significantly, Prisoners shares the noir ethos that no one is in sole possession of the moral high ground, nor is any villain made of pure villainy; stylized as it is, noir recognizes that life is more mixed than melodrama would have it.

There are certainly allegorical or at least metaphorical aspects of the story, in that Jackman's character, a good guy who captures a boy-man suspected of kidnapping his daughter and brutally tortures him, is reminiscent of the United States succumbing to fear and cowardice and engaging in torture to combat terrorism.  But the allegory doesn't hold for long, because the film has more subtle and complex moral fish to fry.  (And that is a terrible use of idiom there.)

Next, as far as awards and nominations go, Prisoners does not end on a triumphal note (though the ending is not as ambiguous as a lot of obtuse people want to think), and the good guys and bad guys are all muddled up morally.  Moreover, the stellar cast is truly used as an ensemble, which makes handing out award nominations much harder.  (The National Board of Review actually nominated the cast AS an ensemble.)  If there is someone to be singled out, it has to be Jake Gyllenhall, with the best work of his I have seen yet.  Here's a little bit.

Prisoners is not a film that calls for a sequel, but I would like to see Gyllenhall play this character again.

If you're still on the fence about the rewards of seeing this film, I urge you in the strongest terms to click this link and look at this superb and detailed analysis, written by cinematographer Matthew Scott, of the look of the film and the depth of its craft.  As an example, here is the still I put at the top of this post, as de-constructed by Mr. Scott.

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