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'Prisoners' is a smart film that gets awesomely stupid

The dramatic thriller "Prisoners" may start out acting like an Oscar-worthy exploration of vengeance as a soul-taker, but it soon turns ridiculous.

Hugh Jackman really, really wants an Oscar in "Prisoners." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Hugh Jackman really, really wants an Oscar in "Prisoners."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Prisoners’
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Prisoners” wants to be prestigious. It has a cartoonishly qualified cast of award-gobblers, acting their hearts out. It has a director (Denis Villeneuve) hot of an Oscar-nominated drama (“Incendies”). It’s been gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins (usually of Coen Brothers films), who works wonders with dim lighting in digital cinematography. It even starts out as — and stays through most of its first half — one of those anguished War on Terror-era dramas, where good men are driven more by rage than sense to enact foolish vengeance and make everything worse.

But this is all a red herring. What “Prisoners” turns into is a pretty, emphatically-acted turd — a lurid, ridiculous pot-boiler that couldn’t even seem coherent enough for the airport bookstore. There’s a set-up out of a “Death Wish” movie, out to bring the audience’s blood to a boil: Two little girls go missing. All signs point to a mysterious RV dweller, Paul Dano’s Alex Jones (named after the conspiracy theorist, no doubt). But Alex, a man-child of apparent limited IQ, won’t (or can’t) talk, and when the police — led by vaguely unhinged detective Jake Gyllenhaal, actually named Loki — let him go for lack of evidence, one of the dads, the cumbersomely named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), picks him up, chains him to a radiator and goes Jack Bauer on him. But a single night turns into days then into a week, with no end in sight.

The first half is bluntly effective and tortured, even if it's cartoonishly loaded. (Don’t drink every time you see a crucifix; you may succumb to alcohol poisoning before the last reel.) The second half is just cartoonish. The script runs square into a wall, and thus starts piling on extraneous, go-nowhere plot threads. There’s a pedo priest with an old corpse rotting in his basement. There’s another, younger pedo, who draws symbolic mazes. There’s something with snakes in cases. And the presence of Melissa, as Alex's aunt, isn't typically an omen of nice things to come.

Of course, this is entirely watchable — a real page-turner, if one that makes you feel dirty after and usually during. But it’s sad watching a potentially gut-wrecnhing film turn moronic, and ditto watching fine actors struggle with material that so spectacularly betrays them. Jackman, all hothead shouting followed by anguished praying, is aiming for his Oscar, while Villeneuve’s direction is so heavy it seems the film could fall over and burst into pieces. Had it been a DTV spectacular, directed by a shameless filth merchant, we’d be talking movie of the year.

 
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