Denis Villeneuve, if you haven’t heard his story by now, is the Quebecois filmmaker that recently made good for himself in Hollywood. In 2011, he opened eyes with the Oscar-nominated Incendies, a French-language drama that wrapped Middle Eastern politics into a weighty Sophoclean tragedy. Villeneuve parlayed that film’s success into a Hollywood career in a remarkably short time span. Skipping America’s independent film industry altogether, he returns to the big screen with Prisoners, a Warner Bros production with a star-studded cast and built-in award season prestige. (Sure, Villenueve made the English-language Canadian flick Enemy in between Incendies and Prisoners, but that oddity won’t see a release date until next spring.)
While Incendies, about a Montreal woman trying to piece together the events of her mother’s life before she immigrated to Canada, packs an enormous emotional wallop–hence the Oscar nomination–it wasn’t universally praised. Some critics felt the film was a bit too clever in how it extracted its tears: an oedipal third-act twist that raised the emotional stakes far above any relatable human drama. Yet no critic will ever chastise Incendies for pulling its punches. If anything, Villeneuve was guilty of the opposite, guilty of attempting to raise his film to the status of Greek tragedy with narrative twists that were too shocking to be taken seriously.
Like Incendies, Prisoners centres on a particularly heinous crime (the abduction of two children) and follows the slow, painful process of unlocking what happened. After a mundane Thanksgiving dinner (symbolically replete with a butchered trumpet rendition of “Star-Spangled Banner”), two young girls go missing. An RV was seen on the street earlier that day, but the driver (Paul Dano), who has the mental capacities of a 10 year old, either can’t or won’t say where they are.
As in Incendies, Villeneuve mines instances of dramatic irony for their emotional consequences. After Alex (the creepy RV-driving suspect) is released without being charged, the father of one of the abducted girls (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps him and holds him prisoner in an abandoned house. He tortures the boy, who either refuses to speak or just doesn’t know the reasons behind his suffering. While Keller, the father, does this, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective in charge of the case looks into other, more likely suspects.
Keller’s abduction of Alex is an intriguing turn of events, one that elbows at our moral expectations. Keller’s treatment of Alex is inhumane and, if he’s innocent, indefensible. But what moral standards can you place on a man trying to save the life of his daughter? It’s an intense experience (at least for an hour) and it’s not always pleasant to sit through, but these hefty concerns are largely forgotten by the end of the two-and-a-half hour film. It gives off the vibe of brutality more than it bothers to engage with the consequences of its characters actions.
Unlike Incendies, the crowd-pleasing creep of the Hollywood machine can be felt on Prisoners. It pulls its punches. Rather than taking these characters to a conclusion that’s as emotionally provocative as the set-up, Villeneuve transforms the film into an extended crime procedural. He drags us through a deep moral morass before lifting us up into a pulpy plot line of maze-drawing madmen and boxes full of snakes.
There’s nothing wrong with a good crime procedural, even one that embraces pulpy serial killer clichés, but it preferably wouldn’t disguise itself as a thematically complex drama. And preferably, it wouldn’t clock in at two and half hours. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances in Prisoners, in a role that has almost zero written development. Unfortunately, his presence does nothing the prevent the mind from recalling David Fincher’s Zodiac, another Gyllenhaal-starring serial killer procedural that has its flaws, but would probably be a better use of your time.
Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.