I really enjoy a good police procedural. One of my favorite films of the past few years is David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is kind of an underrated masterpiece, in my opinion. Most of this genre has been relegated to TV lately. Shows like The Killing, Hannibal, and even some aspects of Breaking Bad, which makes sense. The television format allows for a slower paced, more discerning perspective on how crimes take place, and are ultimately solved. It’s hard to fit the entire breadth of an investigation, let alone develop interesting characters, into a two hour long film. Well, that’s probably why they usually clock in at a little over two hours, and almost three hours in Zodiac‘s case. The difficulty of these types of stories can be compounded when you add interesting character dynamics. Like moral pangs, downtrodden cops, and desperate parents.
My feelings about Prisoners are pretty mixed. On the one hand, for most of the films running time, you have a really thrilling procedural, full of interesting characterizations, and a complex representation of morality that you are both repulsed by, and then are completely understanding of. On the flip side, there’s a point where the film devolves into a by the numbers “crime story of the week” via the 1990’s. Well, to a degree.
Losing track of a child is truly one of the most horrible feelings I think a person can experience. For most, fortunately, these moments of terror and complete panic are pretty short lived, but that doesn’t stop you from momentarily devolving into a complete wreck. Imagine having that experience prolonged. There’s an element of complete helplessness that leaps and bounds around in your psyche, but what if you had a chance, however small, to stop those feelings, and then as a consequence find your child? That’s the question that I found to be at the heart of this film. Is enacting “evil” justified for a greater good, and does one engage in these acts to quell their own sense of helplessness rather than actually coming to a resolution?
As the title of the film would imply, there are people being held captive for most of the flick, both literally and figuratively. Literally, two kids are kidnapped and a suspect held hostage. Figuratively, those that are looking for the children are prisoners of their emotions, and their sense of responsibility. As a parent, you are responsible for your kids. Even when they do things without your knowledge or consent, because, in a way, if you raised them in a manner that led them to make poor decisions you’re culpable. Well, at least that’s how I see it, anyways. I know that’s not completely fair, but it’s kind of the way it is, in a broader sense of “raising kids.” This implication is what makes parents feel bad, or guilty about what their children do, or what happens to them, and the younger they are the larger their feelings of responsibility looms. When one’s child is kidnapped, no matter the circumstances, it’s natural to feel guilty, and wrack your brain with thoughts of how you could have prevented it, or what you could do to provide a solution. The problem with asking these questions of yourself, in this context, is that you are under duress. You are over emotional, and emotions can cloud your judgement(Trust me. Like, a whole bunch of Jedi agree with me.). They can lead you down a path that your right minded self would never head down.
Thematically, all that stuff I just said is what Prisoners is all about. How far would you go? How much of your moral foundation would you be willing to compromise, even if there was only the smallest of chances that it would make a difference? This is what Hugh Jackman‘s character is dealing with for the entirety of the picture, and it makes for the most dramatically compelling portions of the film. His desire and intent is recognizable, and what makes it a complex situation is that some of his actions are deplorable, regardless of context. For most of the film, this isn’t a story about “black and white” good vs evil. There’s no heroes, which makes it odd when the movie eventually provides us with a clear cut villain. It’s really awkward and hamfisted. I mean, the movie supports it, kind of, but with the way the sub-text is played out for the first 2/3 of the flick, the resolution comes off as cheap. Seriously, the perpetrator might as well of had a mustache to twirl. It was treading in some really interesting territory, and, dare I say, “adult” moral dilemmas that the way the last 20 minutes plays out almost retroactively ruins the entire movie. Having said that, the journey is totally compelling and expertly executed.
Another bone I have to pick with this movie concerns the police investigation side of things. The movie does a really great job of showing us the mundane nature of solving crimes, and the agonizingly slow process of following clues. It also takes time to give some good amount of characterization to Jake Gyllenhaal‘s detective character. We experience the psychological toll that working on these types of cases could conceivably take on a person, and he sells it pretty well. It’s a pretty “acty” performance, complete with eye twitches and stuff, but it works pretty well, and Gyllenhaal’s naturally soft demeanor gets the characters depressive state across pretty well. What let’s all of this good set-up down is, again, the last act of the film. It pretty much renders a lot of the detective work null and void. It’s resolved by happenstance rather than the effort put forth by the detective character. I mean, the way the story ended could have been interesting if they had made the reveal about a half hour sooner. That way we could have gotten a sense of who the “villain” was, and their motivations, but that’s not what happened. It kind of puzzles me. The script is really good, almost brilliant for most of the movie, that the ending just confuses me. It seems like there must have been some type of interference somewhere down the film making pipeline. The first 2/3 are so uncompromising, and kind of brutal, that the last act feels like it’s from a different movie, or from a discarded Law and Order episode. I don’t know. It was weird.
There’s also some weird social/political commentary going on in the movie that felt a little out of place. Hugh Jackman’s character is a hunter, and a “prepper,” complete with a basement full of food, lanterns, and butane. Oh, and I think they also mention in passing that he’s a Republican(Oh no! Anything but that!). From what I gather from the film, it seems to imply that people like this a predisposed to be more violent and can be loose cannons. Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call bull shit on that, movie. I mean, it does show you that a more liberal minded person could also be capable of violence as well, but it asserts it would never be this persons idea. No, of course not. I don’t know, it just felt out of place, and ultimately unnecessary, as it really serves no purpose other than as a character foot-note.
It’s not all bad, though. Like I said, most of the movie is really great, and maintains a really thick sense of dread and foreboding for most of the movie. The cinematography is really top notch, and the muted color palette really brings you into the mind set of the characters, which just elevates some already great performances. Especially, Hugh Jackman. He really knocks it out of the park in this flick. Nothing feels false about his performance, and the moral complexity of his actions are never lost on the audience. He doesn’t do it in a heavy handed way either. It’s all about subtle glances, and uncertain looks. It’s a character that’s really easy to empathize with, even when we know what he’s doing is probably wrong.
This is a hard movie to discuss without just spoiling the whole thing, and if I did that, and you had even the vaguest desire to watch it, I’d be doing you a real disservice. Even though the ending kind of sucks, it’s all about the journey, and in that, the movie does find some success, and is ultimately enjoyable.
Prisoners is so close to being really great. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the last 20 minutes, it would probably have been one of my favorites of the year. It’s really frustrating, because we don’t get movies like this made all that often. Having said that, I’d still say give it a rental. There’s enough good stuff going on here to make it worth your time. Or, if you’ve never seen them or it’s just been awhile, watch Seven or Zodiac. Just as a sidebar, Zodiac is on Netflix Streaming at the moment. So, there you go.