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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 21.43%
Average: 17.86%
Pretty Bad32.14%
Total Crap: 28.57%

2 reviews, 16 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Little Love But Lots Of Squalor"
1 stars

As anyone who actually pays attention to my reviews presumably knows, I am someone who has no problem in regards to dealing with material that could be described as bleak, grim and unpleasant. After all, I am an enormous fan of Michael Haneke (especially his early, funny stuff) and I even voluntarily sat through "Margaret" twice. I bring this up only because I want it to be known right from the start that when I say that the new drama "Prisoners" is an ugly, dreadful and achingly pretentious mess, it is not because I have an adverse reaction to the darkness that is on display in virtually every frame. No, my problem with the film is that it is an emotionally inert and dramatically inept grotesquerie that has apparently been created under the assumption that if the material is squalid enough and the performances are loud enough, most viewers will be too distracted to notice just how alternately silly and sleazy the whole nasty enterprise really is.

Just in case you had any worries that there might be a solitary moment of warmth or grace somewhere in its 150-minute running time, "Prisoners" disabuses us of that notion right from the start as we see a hunter and his son bringing down a deer in the woods, largely to remind viewers that the world is a cold and harsh place in which innocence can be snuffed out in a moment's notice (but don't worry--the film hasn't even come close to bagging its limit of Symbolism.) The man is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a genial family man who nevertheless is paranoid enough about protecting his brood from the dangers of the outside world that he has crammed his basement with enough supplies to keep an entire survivalist camp running for at least a year or two. (See what I mean about the rampant Symbolism?)

Anyway, it is Thanksgiving, that most seemingly bucolic of holidays (and at this point, I will leave the Symbolism notation to you), and so Keller, wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two kids--teenaged son Ralph (Dylan Minette) and adorable moppet Anna (Erin Gerasimovich)--walk down the street to have dinner with old friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their family. After dinner, Anna and the Birch's young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) go out to play and seemingly vanish into thin air--perhaps it has something to do with that dilapidated old RV parked on the street that they were inexplicably playing on earlier in the day and which has now vanished.

Hours later, the RV turns up and dedicated Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal)--we can tell he is dedicated because he is spending his Thanksgiving eating by himself in an otherwise deserted Chinese restaurant--takes the call and nabs the driver as he attempts to escape. This is Alex (Paul Dano), a weirdo who appears to be mentally handicapped and looks at first glance to be just the type of person who would drive around snatching little girls. The only trouble is that he claims to have no knowledge of their whereabouts and there is absolutely no physical evidence connecting him to them and, despite Loki's pleas to his superiors for just a little more time, Alex is released after a couple of days into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo).

Needless to say, Keller is outraged by this development--he is fully convinced that Alex knows exactly where the girls are and is playing a game with the police. Filled with rage and at wit's end, he decides that the best way to get Alex to finally confess is kidnapping him at gunpoint, locking him up in a dilapidated apartment building that he just happens to own and, while telling Grace that he is still searching for their daughter, brutally torturing him until he finally cracks. Keller even invites Franklin to participate in the savagery and while his friend is too horrified to actually participate in the relentless beatings, he is not horrified enough to inform the police. (Franklin does mention what is going to his wife, though her reaction is probably not what he expected, though it does help Viola Davis reach her six minutes.)

While Keller is dividing his time between beating Alex into a pulp and falling off the wagon in dramatic fashion, Loki continues his investigation and makes a couple of discoveries that suggest that Alex may indeed be innocent. While following up a lead with a drunken pedophile priest (Len Cariou), Loki makes a discovery in his basement that may be connected to a string of past child disappearances. A little later on, another potential suspect arrives on the scene who comes across as so strange and off-putting that he makes Alex seem staid by comparison. In case you are worried that I have given away an unconscionable amount of the plot, it should be known that I have only summarized perhaps the first hour or so and the subsequent 90 minutes still has any number of surprise twists, turns, revelations, moral quandaries and queasy sights in store.

Right from the start, it is obvious that "Prisoners" is a film that worships at the altar of David Fincher in every possible way ranging from its grim narrative to its methodical pacing to its moody visual style. On the surface, director Denis Villeneuve so closely approximates Fincher's cinematic approach that it genuinely feels like a mash-up of "Seven" and "Zodiac," right down to the presence of Gyllenhaal playing another investigator obsessed with winding his way through the maze that he has landed himself in. In this regard, the film sort of works because the contributions of cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johannsson are genuinely impressive and go a long way towards establishing the film's bleak and despairing tone while at the same time providing the raw material for arresting trailers and TV commercials, perhaps an even more important concern for all involved.

Unfortunately for "Prisoners," there is almost nothing else about the film that works, either in comparison to the FIncher filmography or just as a regular run-of-the-mill thriller. For one thing, while most of the discussion of Fincher's work tends to focus on his distinct cinematic style, the truth is that his films tend to feature strongly constructed screenplays that tell interesting and unique stories in a smart and compelling manner. The key problem is that the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is a laughable mess that takes huge chunks of such previous films as "Mystic River" and "In the Bedroom" (not to mention a couple of others that I will not mention on the grounds that to do so could possibly tip some key plot developments) and tries to spackle them together into a coherent narrative with the aforementioned rampant Symbolism, meditations on the nature of good and evil and the kind of Level One moral debate one might find in a high school sociology classroom guide. ("Does Keller have the right to torture Alex if it means saving his daughter's life? Discuss.")

The result is an overlong and drawn-out bore that is so proud of its endless twists and turns that it never bothers to stop and see if they make any sense--some of the lapses in logic are so egregious that they would stick out like a sore thumb in the context of a straight-to-video thriller starring one of the lesser Baldwins, let alone a film hoping to be a prime piece of Oscar bait. And yet, even with a running time pushing 150 minutes, the story feels strangely undernourished in many respects--we never get a firm grasp of what exactly drives Loki as a person, Keller and Franklin's families are so arbitrarily sketched in that it feels as if huge chunks of narrative were left on the cutting room floor--and Villeneuve's glacial pacing doesn't help matters much either. The final scenes are especially infuriating in the way that they throw a couple of dangerous and essentially pointless high-speed car chases into the mix to perversely suggest that, just at the moment when we may be beginning to think that there just might be some brief glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, everything could just end in a flash as the result of an unrelated accident.

"Prisoners" may have the look and feel of a thoughtful, high-grade adult drama and it even has a top-flight cast to help give that impression (though nearly everyone seems to be engaged in a contest to see who can do the most acting) but for all intents and purposes, there is little in the end to separate it from the likes of the lesser "Death Wish" sequels in which Charles Bronson would take down the boogeyman in broadly drawn tales of grim brutality. Then again, the Bronson films were overtly trashy films that blatantly preyed on the worst fears of the audience in order to get a rise out of them while the more dishonest "Prisoners" pretends to be saying profound things about the ideas of good, evil and justice but is clearly more interested in exploiting these things rather than exploring them.

In the end, "Prisoners" is a poorly constructed and morally dubious mess that, despite the raves it has been receiving in some quarters, I cannot imagine that anyone would willingly choose to endure unless it was to satisfy their desire to see Paul Dano being brutally beaten before their eyes. On that level, it works (though it worked better in "There Will Be Blood") but on all others, it is such a bloody botch that it almost makes "The Brave One" look competent by comparison.

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originally posted: 09/20/13 07:32:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2013 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell a good film a bit 2 long though 4 stars
10/03/16 Bob Most of the user comments are this review 4 stars
8/13/15 Joe Palmer BORING 2 stars
7/04/14 Simon Looked great (directing/photog), okay who-dun-it distraction, just a long Criminal Minds ep 3 stars
5/11/14 Jack I feel the same way about this as Hostel and Last House on the Left:UTTER CRAP! 1 stars
1/26/14 Monday Morning The feel-good film of 2013! 3 stars
1/16/14 Josh Barrett Finall a film critic who knows what he's talking about. This movie was so stupid. 2 stars
1/06/14 Ozzy Held my interest throughout, but a lesser film than it wants to be 3 stars
12/27/13 Langano Flawed but still decent. 3 stars
12/24/13 Ty Writer had a decent premise then realized he had nowhere to go 1 stars
10/19/13 Jeff WIlder Not as good as Mystic River. But still wortwhile. 4 stars
10/04/13 Monday Morning 2-1/2 hours run time? How self-indulgent of the director. No sense of pace. 2 stars
9/27/13 Thomas Muther, Jr. Certainly no "Sweet Hereafter"--too little preface & wastes TH,VD & MB, but still riveting. 4 stars
9/24/13 Jack B Comparing to Death Wish is an extreme disservice and far from the mark 4 stars
9/21/13 mr.mike I liked it more than Peter did! 4 stars
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  20-Sep-2013 (R)
  DVD: 17-Dec-2013


  DVD: 17-Dec-2013

Directed by
  Denis Villeneuve

Written by
  Aaron Guzikowski

  Jake Gyllenhaal
  Hugh Jackman
  Paul Dano
  Melissa Leo

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