Prisoners (2013)

Saturday, February 01, 2014
Photo Credit: Prisoners / Warner Bros Pictures
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a survivalist, preparing for the worst and praying for the best. In fact the first five minutes go out of its way to signify this by having him simultaneously sharing a prayer with his son as they master a big kill in a forest hunting. Upon returning home Dover and his family walk over to a neighbor's friends house for the evening to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The families' little girls are playing outside as their older siblings watch over them. A huge RV camper is parked on an empty nearby street. The kids retreat home and the gathering brings out more holiday merriment. Then the two little girls head outside again and don't return. They're kidnapped. Within a short period of time, Officer Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to the investigation detains Alex Jones (Paul Dano)- a young man with a very low IQ was seen driving a matching RV.

SPOILERS AHEAD
(and a super long rant posted when I was high on frustration)

We're meant to believe that Hugh Jackman's protagonist is a survivalist and a man of faith - yet he doesn't wait one second before Jones is released without sufficient evidence and attacks him in front of the media and Officer Loki. Believing he is given more evidence that Jones is the perpetrator, Dover kidnaps him one evening and tortures him in a desolate building for answers.

Here's the first big mistake: Dover not only poorly convinces the other daughter's father (Terrence Howard) to join him in torturing as an act of faith that their girls will be found alive, but neither take precautions to wear any kind of mask. It's just a small detail and probably not the first red herring that the script was weaker than it seemed, but it did. It got to me. A survivalist who has stocked up his house for every worst kind of disaster doesn't wear a ski mask to kidnap someone. They go through all the trouble of concealing their acts by changing their clothes after bloodying Jones and breaking in his face but don't protect their identities....

What will Dover do if Jones never confesses? How will he live with himself if his daughter is found alive and he kills this disturbed kid? These questions keep us guessing as Loki, on the other hand, is digging up unsolved missing children cases meant to rope us back together to the original plot. Maybe Dover has nothing left to lose except (you know) his freedom if he's found caught, but it's these frivolous details that make the movie lose sight of the whole picture as the plot only complicates itself further.
  • Every main character is in the middle of nowhere all the time.Yet the film tries to build sufficient evidence about what a small middle-American setting surrounds them. How can such a big event like this take place and zero strangers see Dover go in and out of his apartment building in the middle of the day when he's supposed to be out looking for his daughter like everyone else? How does Jones, who was just made suspect in a kidnapping charge and told not to leave the county, go missing and nobody looks into it - not even Loki?
  • Officer Loki and the local authorities have to be the worst investigators because every location they "combed entirely" inevitably had some sort of evidence that was conveniently declared useless until it needed to help the plot make sense later on.
  • Neither the Dover or Birch family locks their doors after their children have been kidnapped allowing a creeper with a fetish for children's clothing to easily sneak in and out of their homes. 
  • Survivalists, religious overtones, drug and alcohol addiction, tears, yelling, a tattooed cop who has never lost solving a case, mothers who lose themselves in taking pills and fathers who think they are being proactive by torturing the only suspect, the one main suspect kills himself in an interrogation room, a police captain on a budget who can't add more security to watch Jones - who eventually gets kidnapped, kids who are previously kidnapped turn up to be the psychotic adults reliving their pain. The cliches just kept piling up.
Reminding me of the Chesire Cat appearing before Alice in Wonderland with signs to aimlessly wander in all directions, the movie becomes inherently lost. The story wanted us to look at these different characters and all of these other side mysteries - which pushed us further into a void of wondering who is the real merciless criminal. We are pointed to look high and low, this and that way, before the screenwriter just throws in the towel, "Screw it - here's the ending".

As the audience with suspense films, we are unwrapping a heart-pounding mysterious present. Fogged by intrigue and questions of how and why, we gain courage to dig into what we've been given only sometimes to find nothing inside. It's not even something bad, or something good, but nothing at all.

Prisoners is why I usually avoid modern suspense movies like the plague. A two and half hour spectacle of mystery strung along through dead-end after dead-end praying the story will conclude with one of its more prominent alternative endings, and it doesn't - it goes for the stale cheesy finale of finales.

Early in the film, Officer Loki visits Jones' house and his Aunt (Melissa Leo) for a brief questioning. I knew it was her. She pats her nephew's leg giving them privacy to talk and this one gesture signified my gut to know the conclusion....When it was finally revealed, her reasoning is so cheap and cliche (sparked by her religious beliefs to wage war on others to see how humans become like animals), I tormented by the obvious thematics the film fell for.

Prisoners tried to be psychological and emotionally deep but it wasn't. If the message was that each character is a prisoner of something, it was a horribly weak collection of evidence. Jackman repeats throughout the film a warning that the more time his little girl is gone, the less chances there are that she and her friend are alive. He does this so often even this feels like a compilation of weak PSA commercials. Except for the kidnapping, nothing brings these families closer together - not desperation, or faith, or surviving.

The true shame of Prisoners is that it became the kind of movie I didn't want it to be. The movie where if it wasn't for the cast (especially Gyllenhaal), it's something I would've eventually turned off and just checked Wiki to see if I was right. If the cinematography and direction hadn't been executed so perfectly and fluidly, this could've easily been a made for tv movie. So I give huge kudos to the cast and crew because production-wise they created one hell of an atmospheric film.

However, Prisoners also became the kind of movie where two-thirds of the way through I realized I spent 100 minutes watching it, so I might as well complete it "just cause". So, that's what I did. I charged forward partly out of suspense and partly out of confusion. And fully naively expected some sort of resolution that didn't even have to be cathartic. I just didn't want to end up a prisoner of my couch and television with nothing to show for it  - except massive disappointment....Should've seen that coming from the beginning.

Rating: ★☆☆
Have you seen Prisoners? What do you think?

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