It must really suck when you make a good solid movie only for something vaguely similar to get released to mass plaudits and glory and shit. It’s sort of what Amadeus was all about. Or Gobots. I mean, who the hell wanted a Gobot when you could have a Transformer?
Prisoners is just one of those great films that seemingly came and went. Let’s find out why.
Okay, we’re not talking crazy coincidences like Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Or Armageddon and Deep Impact. But Prisoners undoubtedly strikes the same chords as Gone Girl – We’re in suburban America. Everything is sort of grey in colour. Everyone is unhappy. Throw in some mental kidnapping plots, twists, turns, and no idea how it’s all going to play out at the end, and you’ve pretty much got both films. But let’s stick with Prisoners for now. We’ll discuss Gone Girl another day.
Pennsylvania. The ‘burbs. But not the same kind of ‘burbs like in the ‘burbs. It’s not a quaint little cul-de sac. We’re talking faceless houses, oppressive treelines, and the encroaching grimness of winter. It’s Thanksgiving, and God-fearing handyman Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman – X-Men: Days of Future Past) and his wife Grace (Maria Bell0 – Payback) are heading out for a celebration feed with their two kids.
They cross the street and head into the home of friends Franklin (Terence Howard – Iron Man) and Nancy (Viola Davis – Law Abiding Citizen) Birch. They’ve got two kids of their own, so when the youngsters Anna and Joy want to go play outside, it’s up to the teenagers Eliza and Dylan to babysit.
While Eliza and Dylan shoot the shit, the kids find a decrepit RV to play on. Seriously, it’s as dodgy looking as that toilet in Trainspotting. There’s faint music within, but no sign of life. Dylan warns them off, and they return to the house for a gluttonous feast. Later, when the parents are being sucked into that post-gorge/pre-nap haze, Anna asks if she and Joy could go across the street to go play in the Dover house. The parents agree, just don’t go in the basement.
Hours pass and the kids are nowhere to be seen. They’re probably out playing somewhere. After an increasingly frantic search, they don’t turn up. People start to panic. Dylan mentions the RV they were playing on earlier, and they all dash over to where it was parked. But OMG it’s gone. It’s time to get the police involved.
Across town, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal – End of Watch) is trying to convince the waitress in the local Chinese buffet to give him a free meal. But it’s no dice, even if it is Thanksgiving. After some chatter over the radio, he spies the RV parked outside. He calls in backup and it’s quickly surrounded. It doesn’t go quietly though, and instead drives headfirst into a forest. Yeah, that isn’t incriminating. Catching up to it, the cops peel the driver from the wreckage, and arrest his dumbfounded ass. Obviously they try their best Batman “where are they” impressions, before carting him back to the station. The kids aren’t in the RV, that’s for sure, so they start a search of the forest. The Dover and Birch families join in, hopes fading.
Back in the interrogation booth, we get our first proper look at the suspect. Alex Jones (Paul Dano – Looper), has the mind of a child, and doesn’t know anything about the little girls. He looks mega uncomfortable, and you can almost believe he’s innocent, if it wasn’t for that insane haircut. He speaks in hushed tones, and is hardly convincing anyone, Loki especially. But they can only hold him for so long, unless they find some evidence. Sadly, the RV is clean. Even CSI Pennsylvania couldn’t find a print, a hair sample, or a bit of DNA spilled inside, so things are looking doubtful.
Dover is convinced he’s guilty. I mean, this weird retard driving around in a dirty motor home, with the same haircut as someone off That 70’s Show, what else is he going to be doing except preying on little kids? He begs Loki to sweat him some more, to make him say where the girls are. But Loki can only legally hold Alex for 24 hours (you know, thanks to law and whatnot). In fact, Loki thinks he’s innocent, and spends the rest of the day paying visits to the 16 registered child sex offenders in the area. He even manages to find a body of some other poor dude (who was “waging a war against God”) in the basement of some rapist priest. Yeah, the paperwork is going to be a bitch this week, John Loki.
The next day, Jones is released into the care of his adopted aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo – The Fighter). Dover is there, and get’s right in their faces. Mid-tussle, Alex whispers “they didn’t cry until I left them”. Oh man, this shit is on now. Even after telling Loki, they still have nothing to hold Alex on. Furious, Dover vows to find the kids himself, whatever the cost.
That night, Dover watches the Jones residence, waiting for his chance. Alex heads out late at night to walk the family mutt. Mid-way through the stroll, he stops and chokes the dog mercilessly. It’s pretty creepy. Before the dog dies, he stops, and continues the walk like nothing happened. Yeah, he’s also whistling the same tune the girls were singing on Thanksgiving. Not too incriminating, right?
Franklin turns up at the Dover house the next day. He’s brought a spare change of clothes, as Keller has requested. Grace is upstairs, asleep, drugged up the eyeballs. So the pair head out in Keller’s truck. He has to something show Franklin. They head to a deserted apartment block. Keller’s father used to live here. He keeps getting grief from the family to spruce it up and sell it. The stupid pricks don’t realize that it will probably cost about a million bucks to fix up. Anyway, in his Dad’s old apartment, Keller shows Franklin his surprise – Alex Jones handcuffed to the pipework.
The argument is this – the police aren’t getting anywhere with him, so they’re going to have to make Alex talk. They don’t want to hurt him, but they will unless he tells them where the girls are. Franklin is super sketchy about all this, but helps Keller work him over. Despite the huge beating they administer, he won’t talk. Or he doesn’t know anything. Maybe we’ve made a mistake. Maybe he is just a poor kid caught in the middle of all this. Maybe he really is innocent? We can’t be sure.
So what is Keller going to do? He’s obviously going to have to take it up a notch to get Alex to talk. Using his handyman skills to build a mini-torture dungeon right there in his dead Dad’s bathroom is just chapter one in his Crazy Father’s Guide to Finding Your Missing Daughter.
But Loki is starting to wonder if Dover had something to do with Alex going missing. And just why is there half a bag of lye in his basement? With Franklin bailing out of the dirty work, it’s up to Keller to get the truth from Alex whatever it takes. The kids aren’t going to last much longer (if they aren’t dead already), and even Keller is starting to think that Alex might not know where they are…
And that’s all I’m going to say. To go any further will spoil stuff. Yeah, I’ve given full reviews before. But this is one of those films where if you know the twist before you watch it, it kind of ruins things. It’s like knowing Ed Norton is Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Or that Bruce Willis is actually dead in Sixth Sense. It’s totally lame to spoil these things, and I ain’t going to be that kind of bastard who does it for Prisoners, dammit.
I will say that you’re in for about two and a half hours of wondering what the hell is going to happen. There are a few moments where you put things together just before the characters on screen do, so it’s well plotted, and you feel like Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Which is awesome. You’d think that the run time is a little long, but the extra hour allows director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) to take you around the block all over again.
There’s a lot of elements at play here, and even with the extended run time, some bits aren’t as explored as I’d like (such as the mazes theme). Each of the actors play against type as well, save for Dano, who seemingly thrives on playing weirdos. Jackman is almost unlikable in his unyielding approach, but you’re constantly reassuring yourself that you’d do the same if some freak took your own kid (I don’t even have a kid, but I’d be down with making an ad hoc shower incinerator to get to the truth). He’s not the lovable grumpy mutant or the lovable grumpy robot boxer trainer. He’s verging on crazy here, and the ending leaves you wondering if he actually deserves what he gets.
I don’t know if I like the…ambiguity of the Loki character. He’s not really given much backstory, save for the fact he’s never lost a case. Gyllenhaal does his best to add some flare to the character, with unusual tattoos, a Freemasons ring, and a weird blinking tic sort of thing. But Loki isn’t Clarice Starling. He’s likable, but he doesn’t give us much else.
Bello is a bit wasted too, and is resigned to staying in bed and crying, something that would annoy the crap out of me were she my wife in the same position. In fact, the whole movie makes you question just what the hell you would do in similar circumstances, which is cool. How often does a film do that for you? I mean, you don’t really have a moment to think about how you’d fend off an attack from a bunch of south American militants when watching Invasion USA, do you? Prisoners, however, plays on a whole host of emotions – the main one being “Christ, I’d hate to go through that shit”. The conflict of Dover torturing Alex, someone who, on one hand, maybe knows something, and on the other, maybe doesn’t, is one of the main themes beyond the whole child kidnapping thing.
It’s a pretty grim story, which the production design keeps pace with. There’s no bright colours. Even when Loki finds one of Anna’s pink socks, it’s covered in the muck of desperate reality. Everything is done well, with no one area letting us down. So why aren’t people talking about it like they are/were about Gone Girl. Well, Gone Girl had the stylistic brilliance of director David Fincher (Alien 3), and Oscar performances from leads Ben Affleck (Smokin’ Aces) and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher).
But the cleverness of Gone Girl was how it played with the perception of the audience. At first you’re slowly made to hate Affleck’s Nick Dunne character. By clever writing and camera work, you’re made to believe that he might actually have killed his beautiful, talented and rich wife. Then you’re made to think “Yes! She’s not dead, she’s just framing him because he’s a massive prick – he totally deserves it”. Then it turns again and you’re all “woah, this bitch be mental”. The story itself is very clever, but the artistry of this journey elevates it above the likes of Prisoners.
That’s not to say that Prisoners isn’t any good. Far from it. Prisoners is solid. It’s like The Dark Knight Rises. We all know it’s not as good as The Dark Knight. But we’re okay with that. I won’t pretend that it’s something that hasn’t been done before – we’ve seen these sort of thriller mysteries before. It isn’t going to oust Silence of The Lambs from the throne. Yet, it’s a good watch. It’s entertaining, it isn’t a sequel or a superhero movie, and the ending is pretty damn tense. How often can you say that?
If you want to know if Wolverine can find the lost children, for the love of Odin, get it watched.