Friday, 27 December 2013

Some pressing thoughts I had about Prisoners

I shall not call this post part of a 2013 film catch-up series since the term catch-up would indicate me being in a contention to begin with. 2013 in blogging has been dismal here. But, let’s call this me taking a look at some 2013 films which, for better or worse, I feel demand some attention from me. So, I eschew a typical review for a five point analysis which gets lengthy because – uh, have we met? So, as this is discussion of Prisoners and its aspects, film plot points will be examined. So, spoilers ahead.

1. When did Jake Gyllenhaal get so good? – this is, perhaps, a slightly disingenuous point since it suggests that he was bad to begin with. Not so. And, yet, armed with a character who is all work and with no heavily discernible personal attributes Jake turns in what might be my favourite performance of his career. As Detective Loki (an admittedly, troublesome moniker since it's so specific and not really examined), the officer brought in to investigate the disappearance of two young girls, Gyllenhaal adds unlikely depth and genuineness to what could be a standard role. In the wake he gives one of the most sincere portrayals of a movie detective I can remember in at least this century. It’s possible there are personal demons lurking beneath, but the film does not care and the performance is so excellently straightforward, it doesn’t matter. We just know that this is a man with an overzealous devotion to his job. Eliciting profundity from a character with such a single, dogged focus is worthy of praise. Which reminded me of this:
I chuckled, but I sort of get where Candice is coming from even though the performance is unromantic to the point of being almost asexual. Sometimes good work ethic can just be an attractive thing. And tattoos.

2. Which, in considering potentially stock character but great performance it makes me wonder What was up with the role poor Maria Bello got stuck with? – because I was significantly less enthused with the way that  character was created and performed. Bello plays Grace Dover, the wife of Jackman’s character, and the mother of one of the missing girls. The film’s Thanksgiving Day opening gives us an indication of a generic family life, then after their daughter goes missing Grace becomes more and more unhinged. Grief at a missing child is not implausible, but Grace’s descent into a drug-addled (medication) stupor sits uneasily with me especially when Bello is either stuck with a turgid character, or unable to elevate an unexceptional one. She seems to be playing different persons from scene to scene, and character discussion around her suggests a character with possible psychological issues (like when Jackman’s Keller Dover – yes, that is his name – urges his son to take care – of his mother) but it all seems just a misdirection when in her final scene, just days after she seems completely lucid and not quite perturbed at her husband’s disappearance. For such a sprawling film Prisoners is not implausible or sloppily written, but for this wife issue which, though somewhat minor, emerges as my major contention with it. Grace’s lack of agency, and Bello’s struggle with the character, becomes an issue. When, at the end, she seems so unaffected by the perceived fate of Keller it jolts me slightly since the film never gives any indication that their marriage is on such rocky ground.

...more below on the film's tone, Hugh's performance and the ensemble...

3. On approaching the outlandish with solemnity – I have discussed this before, but one of my least favourite film criticism recitatives is “X takes itself too seriously”. Unless it’s a comedy where it would be a legitimate issue, I’m highly mistrustful of the insistence that a film which approaches its subject with earnestness is being too full of itself. I always say, if as a filmmaker you’re not willing to be seriously invested in your own drama – why should I? Prisoners is a film of incidents which get progressively more outlandish as the minutes pass, but as directed by Denis Villeneuve and photographed by Roger Deakins the entire thing is all very solemn and reflective. There are moments in the movie which I found significantly unsettling to the point of being like a horror film in the way tension was built and then sustained but there’s nothing about its potentially horror tenets which has levity or is pulpy. For me, this isn’t a problem both because nothing’s wrong with seriousness and it makes me think of one of my favourite things about Prisoners the further away from it I get – what to do when a film so thoroughly subverts our expectations in terms of focus and tone? This isn’t the type of Don Jon situation where I find a film not making good on what it suggests. And, in a way, Prisoners like many thrillers is forced to attempt to surprise us because that is how the genre works but the movie is so relentlessly earnest even as it observes characters being bizarre. In that way I tend to cheer on its tone because as we watch Keller Dover’s descent into not-quite-righteous fury the camera is so sanguine in its observation that we’re uncomfortable and uncertain as to how we should feel about him. Consider the film’s final moments with Keller trapped in the hole, maybe nearing death. And the faint whistle catches Loki’s attention as the camera stays on him. What is he thinking? What should we be thinking? The further frustrating beat of not giving us closure upset me at first until I tried examining my feelings and wondering just why I felt so upset. The film’s opening of a deer being shot as Keller recites the lord’s prayer seems way too standard a film for comes after, everything in the sustained prologue of the Dovers having thanksgiving dinner with their friends does not seem to suggest the prolonged madness which comes after. Although, maybe in my general appreciation for the film I was trying to make sense from whence none came but it occurred to me that leaving the audience suspended as to the actual outcome is the only way for the film to end. It lines up with Villeneuve’s unjudging camera forcing us to make the decision, which accounts for my own discomfort. But, maybe, that queasy feeling in my stomach after the film ends is only indicative of the effect of what came before?

4. Oh, Hugh – the thing about forcing the audience to make a decision, though, seems a bit ill-judged when the talented (individually talented, at least) ensemble does not coalesce in moving towards a single goal. Take, for example, de facto lead (well, one of them) Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover. He is the religious, survivalist, alpha-male who instinctively doubts the police’s competence and thus takes matters into his own hands. Pre-release I could not escape the notes of this film depending on the visceral performance from Jackman, an actor I have admittedly never loved but occasionally liked. It’s not that his exceptionally aggressive work as Dover is poor, it just has the misfortunate of having little emotional effect on me. It returns me to the initial point of Jake excellently turning a fair character into a great performance, and maybe Prisoners consistent fault is a script that does not give much in the way of character development. And Hugh is, indeed, stuck playing a man who exists in various shades of anger to ANGER to ANGER!!! but the performance itself seems to be all sound and fury with not enough nuance. I’m not sure if that is the point, but it becomes so easy to root against that even though Prisoners never lose my interest I end up caring about the case’s solution inasmuch as it helps Detective Loki just because Jackman’s Dover is such a difficult man to be invested in. The tension of hoping the girls are found is there, but it's a performance that I never miss when he disappears off-screen and it makes me ponder why with such a wide net - two girls are kidnapped and two families are thrust into chaos - is made narrower. Not that the story's focus is flawed, but since Keller Dover does become the parent being most focused on it's a shame I don't find him decisively leading the cast, performance wise.

5. And, it’s odd. Because consider the excellent roll-call of cast members the lovely Viola Davis and in-form Terrence Howard play the parents of the other kidnapped victim who don’t get to do as much as I’d like. They both make incredible use of their short time, Howard in particular who gives my second favourite performance of the film, but it does make you ponder why – other than for the thrill factor – Aaron Guzikowski decided Keller Dover was the man through whom we should approach this story. Or, maybe it’s just a general indication of the weird way that that cast – Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Len Cariou (!!!), Bello are giving fair performances but never seem to be working together. I’m surprised, for example, that the film has won Best Ensemble citations because other than Jake – excellently weaving through each arc – no one seems to be acting together, but just ably acting in their own world. Which is, ultimately, not too much of a crutch because Prisoners is a director’s tale of moodiness and tension. I’m still thinking of the ways it made me uncomfortable and surprised, and sometimes baffled but its finest asset is the way that Villeneuve – with the help of his technical team – seems completely assured of what movie he is telling. Even the movie itself is something unusual. But in its unusual way, terribly intriguing.

(I'm sorry, I don't know why this is so long either.)



Brittani Burnham said...

This was a great read! I loved this film, absolutely loved it. I wish Paul Dano would've had more to work with. He's such an underrated actor and I keep waiting for him to get some awards consideration again.

Andrew K. said...

thanks brittani, i was worried it got to plodding. i love dano, too. he's gives one of my favourite 06 performances in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. but he's mostly on the outskirts here. it's not so much the ensemble in bad, but so many of them aren't really given much to do. not a fault in the film, but you'd anticipate more with the cast list.

Shane Slater said...

Interesting analysis. I also was initially surprised by the awards citations for Best Ensemble, but Nathaniel made a really great note about it in his article:

"..Prisoners which is a sharp example of stars NOT connecting with each other on purpose. Everyone in that cast is alone since all the characters are horrified by each other (and sometimes themselves), trapped in their own personal grief and grievances."

Zach Murphy said...

Gyllenhaal was really impressive in this.

I liked the film a good amount the first time I saw it, but I recently rewatched it and liked it significantly more.

- Zach