Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Produced by: Broderick Johnson
Andrew A. Kosove
Screenplay by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman
Music by: Johann Johannsson
Cinematography by: Roger A. Deakins
Editing by: Joel Cox
Gary D. Roach
Studio: Alcon Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures (United States/International)
Paramount Pictures (United Kingdom)
Release date(s): August 30, 2013 (Telluride Film Festival)
September 20, 2013 (United States)
September 27, 2013 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 153 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $46 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $101, 527, 401
As I say time and time again, things are happening on this blog, and perhaps that's my way of saying that a wave of change is coming over me personally. I don't know if everyone has had this kind of feeling, perhaps if they have it's described in different words or not even words at all, but I do feel this slow tectonic shift in my being. I'm at a stage of transition which sees the paths in front of me undecided. To bring me back down to Earth from my metaphysical pedestal (and by way of referencing a certain movie - half a brownie point considering how much I go on about it!), "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves." So, for more existentialist rambles, and the odd bit of chatter regarding the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!
So, today's movie up for analysis is Prisoners, which has since it's release shaped itself up as a potential Oscar contender. It has been well-received, and two people who I know personally have recommended the film to me, but, as ever, perception is in the eye of the beholder, so, we'll see what way I fall with this one. Concerning the abduction of two girls, taken during a Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania and the ramifications that this has on the people around it, Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a deeply religious man and father of one of the two girls, and stops at nothing, including the law, in the search for his daughter, and with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) conducting his own investigation into the crime(s), paths cross, weave and bounce off one another in this procedural thriller. Shall we dance?
To start off with the good about the film, the ensemble cast is excellent. Hugh Jackman is someone, for anyone who'll listen, I hold in high regard, and his performance here as Keller is one of the best of his career. Using that natural charisma that he brings to the table, Jackman draws us in to empathising greatly with his character's plight, which puts us as an audience in a real moral quandary when he starts doing monstrous things in order to catch the criminal involved. Furthermore, the intensity level of his character is at times very shocking, especially given the control Jackman has over the volume of his voice; you can literally hear Keller's heart in his throat, revving up and down like a speedometer. Also terrific is Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as Detective Loki. Acting as the strong polarity to Jackman, Gyllenhaal calm demeanour and attempt's at objectivity bely someone underneath who probably feels hindered by the law yet abides fully by it. Using the most subtle yet telling facial expressions, such as this twitch of a strong blink that seems a force of habit of the character, Gyllenhaal gives this part real depth and complexity. Although those are the two standout performances of the film, I'll just rattle off a number of the other ones that I was impressed with. Viola Davis and Terence Howard are both strong as the neighbours and parents of the other child kidnapped, as is Maria Bello in the part of Grace Dover. Also good are Melissa Leo, Dylan Minnette, David Dastmalchian and Paul Dano, who proves once again that since Little Miss Sunshine he's a versatile actor and force to be reckoned with in his role as the man-child suspect Alex Jones. Each of these actors, no matter how big or small their part, does something important in the overall story, and for that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski must be praised. This is a real character piece, no one being neglected or standing out as lacking in the piece, and this whole three-dimensionality that we see here is something unique. Furthermore, the way their stories weave in and out of each other structurally, with a scene featuring one person cutting to another, maintain a thematic consistency so that it feels natural to be bouncing between the various characters and that we have appropriate drive of forward momentum. Also, it's a real work of detail, quite clearly the fruit of one's long-term labours and a well-though out writing process, so kudos! The film was shot by the mighty Roger Deakins, one of the inductees into my hall of fame for cinematography. He steeps the picture in this pitch black atmosphere of darkness. This film is in many ways about the possibilities of evil and the inherent sin and corruption of humanity's soul, and Deakins is the one who gets this across by way of his visual language. The lighting is a sort-of DV update of expressionist techniques, and yet despite this it is firmly embedded in reality and never at any point inappropriately stylistic. It's muted, minimalist and yet subtly impressive in contributing to the film's tapestry. The film is scored by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, whose work I hadn't heard before this, but I will be sure to look up. It's a hybrid work full of the traditional things you might expect from a dramatic thriller, strings and woodwind abound and what have you, and I'm cool with Back/Hendel/Vivaldi-inflected baroque minimalism. However, you've also got this ethereal piece (Falling Through Snow - I noted my ears tuning to this during the movie) that's very close to the sound of a church organ, bringing me back a few years to the more religious years in my trysts with Catholicism, to tell you the truth, and it's a beautifully simple thing built from the ground up like a Philip Glass composition. Finally, Denis Villeneuve shines as a director able to control many different elements of a production. The native Quebecer's first English-language production could have seen his talent for drama being lost in translation, but what we get is a great, old-school thriller with a lot of things going for it.
Now, as you can well tell, there were a lot of things I liked about Prisoners, and I do think it was a great movie. However, there are a number of key issues that deny it from being a masterpiece. While I think that Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach (regular Clint Eastwood collaborators) did a good job of interweaving the various strands of the story, the film as a whole could have been chopped down. Roger Corman always said that most movies could do with about a third of it cut out, and while I don't think it's that bad, 120-130 mins would have suited the film far better. Unlike, say, Zodiac, this is a straight character/morality drama, lacking the sheer weight and meticulousness of David Fincher's masterpiece, and while that isn't an insult, it wouldn't be a detriment to the film to gauge the run time more appropriately. Equally, while I think that the screenplay is tremendous in many ways, some of the scenes drag on too long. If this movie was went through with a fine teeth comb so that nothing but the most stripped down bits of meat could get past, this would be watertight. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels at bursting point.
Despite my reservations regarding the overlong running time, which could have been refined through sharper cutting and fine tuning the script to perfection, Prisoners was a great movie. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with Jackman and Gyllenhaal delivering some of the best work of their respective careers, and even with it's flaws, the script by Guzikowski is a masterfully structured character piece. The cinematography by Roger Deakins injects it with a pitch black atmosphere, almost akin in a visual sense to what Joy Division does for music, the same of which in many ways can be said of Johann Johannsson's score, which is a hybrid of orchestral baroque-inflected minimalism and electronic driven ethereal soundscapes, and director Denis Villeneuve does an admirable job of controlling so many tangible elements. Doom-laden, gothic and pitch black, Prisoners is a complex mood piece dissecting the potential of evil in the everyday lives of real people.
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