Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Cinema File #258: "Prisoners" Review

If over a decade's worth of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes have taught me anything, its that pedophiles, child kidnappers, and generally evil people who want to do bad things to kids are everywhere. Not being a father myself, I have no way of truly understanding the fear that every parent must feel, that one day their child might end up like the ones we see all too often on the news , missing, seemingly almost never to be found. The new thriller Prisoners attempts to capture the plight of two close knit families as they experience just such a traumatic event, exploring the moral boundaries decent people might cross when a small town community becomes a suspect pool. In its depiction of personal hardship and visceral emotional pain, it is incredibly effective. Unfortunately, once the central mystery begins to unravel, so does the story, and what could have been a powerful examination of a far too common tragedy instead becomes a convoluted mess of a movie that Detectives Benson and Stabler would probably find too hackneyed to bother with.

The overriding dilemma that provides Prisoners with its title boils down to the question of how far a person would go to save a life that is dear to them. Keller Dover, a simple religious Pennsylvania native borders on Prepper levels of pious self-sufficiency, his world strictly in order until his daughter and her best friend go missing and everything falls apart. When an obvious suspect becomes apparent but his extremely low I.Q. and a lack of evidence spares him from jail, Dover takes the law into his own hands and holds the man captive, torturing him for information. Meanwhile, the lead detective on the case literally won't rest until the two girls are found, often clashing with the bereaved father's attempts to intercede into the investigation. I get the sense that we're supposed to see these two men as two sides of the same coin, both desperately committed to a common goal, but separated by method and perspective, but this dichotomy is only one of many things the film sets up, but fails to follow through on.

The story of a father brought to the breaking point, kidnapping a mentally disabled man and beating him to within an inch of his life, only to find out that his captive is very likely innocent, would have been enough. There are so many possibilities, so many interesting avenues to explore with this simple premise. He could ask himself, once the man's innocence is apparent, if he can risk his own freedom by letting him go, or if he must now kill the beaten man to protect himself and his family. Regrettably, I didn't just spoil the movie for you, because these sorts of questions, pregnant with dramatic potential, are ones the film stupidly never thinks to ask. At this point, the specifics of the investigation would seem unimportant, except that Prisoners is so determined to get bogged down in its plot, and its many plot contrivances, that it seems to deliberately turn away from the weighty themes one would think had justified the production in the first place, as if we should care more about the whodunnit element over the larger, personal effects of the crime.

All of this comes to a head in the third act, after two suspected kidnappers are revealed to be red herrings despite an increasingly absurd list of coincidences implicating them, and rather than dealing with the central moral conflict any of the main characters have, we're instead forced to watch the mystery be revealed. And my god is it terrible. I sound like I'm bad mouthing the film a lot, but the fact is, there was a very good movie in here somewhere, and something close to a tour de force performance by Hugh Jackman in probably the best non-mutant role you've ever seen him, and its highly enjoyable up to a point, that point being when we finally learn the motivations of the real culprit. I won't spoil it, except to say that I haven't been this disappointed in the second half of a movie since Looper introduced an incredibly intriguing time travel premise, and then inexplicably shifted into a movie about a boring telekinetic kid on a farm. I mentioned Law and Order: SVU in my introduction because that's exactly what this movie's ending felt like, cheesy, cliched, and exploitative, but without Ice T to stand around being awesome.

There's probably a little more to like about Prisoners than my dour review would suggest, its just that the elements that disappoint are so glaring and easily avoidable that they do a disservice to the truly great movie this could have been. The harrowing personal story that should be the heart of the film is introduced plainly and powerfully, only to be ripped out by the cold hand of well worn police procedural tropes and a needlessly complicated plot not nearly clever or interesting enough to make up for what is lost by failing to explore the major themes of the movie set up before a twist that is all at once entirely predictable and mostly nonsensical. A last minute effort to close the circle and create a sense of narrative symmetry with the title of the film might have worked if I could take any of it seriously by that point, but Prisoners sacrifices so much of the goodwill it creates in the first half that I can't even give it credit for trying to tie everything together in the last few minutes. This movie could have been so much more than it was, and for me, that's almost a bigger sin than had it just been bad from beginning to end.
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