When early Telluride Film Festival reactions hit the web, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2012) was frequently compared to David Fincher’s opus Zodiac (2007). Like Zodiac, Prisoners is about an obsessive search for a criminal. Like Zodiac, Prisoners stars Jake Gyllenhaal as one of its obsessive investigators – one who just happens to have the symbols of the zodiac tattooed on his knuckles. Yet, to compare the two films or – God forbid – to equate them is an exercise in superficial generalization. In the end, Zodiac is well acted, crafted, and actually about something (the obsessive Fincher makes an obsessive film about obsession that forces the viewer to realize his or her own obsessive desire for closure). Prisoners, on the other hand, starts off with a theme but – by the mid-point (it’s a three hour movie that doesn’t earn its running time) it has cast those themes to the wind and is perfectly content to wallow in pulp.
What makes this such a terrible shame is that Prisoners is – like Zodiac – well acted (I would make the case that Gyllenhaal is better here than he was in the latter) and well crafted…at least with regard to Villeneuve’s and cinematographer Roger Deakins’s work. Many of the problems the film has are the product of the screenplay, written by Aaron Guzikowski. So misconstructed is the screenplay that the film begins with stunning promise in its first hour and sinks like a stone across its other 2/3rds. It’s rare to see a such a top-shelf film implode from such a shoddy foundation so quickly (and quickly is a keyword here, as nothing else seems to happen quickly in Prisoners).
The film begins with a tremendous hook: the daughters of Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) are kidnapped on Thanksgiving. The two men believe that an RV may have ridden off with the children and contact the police, fronted by Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal). Loki finds the RV and its driver – a young developmentally challenged man named Alex (Paul Dano). Keller is convinced Alex is the culprit. However, the physical evidence collected by Loki suggests that Alex was not involved in the kidnapping and the police release their first suspect, leaving Keller and his wife (Maria Bello) and Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis) to grieve while other leads are pursued.
Keller, however, lacks the Detective’s reason. Unable to accept that Alex may not have been involved, he kidnaps Alex and – with the reluctant help of Franklin – repeatedly tortures him in an attempt to find out where the children are. This is where the film seems to tee up that it will have some deeper objective than just being the cinematic equivalent of an airport pulp novel. How will Keller’s right wing extremist Christian compromise his deeply seeded religious beliefs (“Forgive those that trespass against us”) against someone who he believes is guilty of kidnapping his child? Sadly, the film has about as much thematic thickness as one of those paper-thin Communion waivers you take on Sunday after confession. The film never interrogates Keller’s hypocritical morality.
In fact, it condones it…
…just as it throws everything else out the window. Now, I do not expect a film to cohere to my personal politics. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) certainly did not but, unlike Prisoners, it actually approached torture with nuance and thought. The more grievous fault is found around the 90 minute mark when Prisoners seems to become another movie all together. The canvas magnifies in size and we’re introduced to conspiracy theories and more red herrings than a fishmonger could peddle in a year. The result of this is the film leaves its well established foundations for a genre exercise that tries to distract you from realizing the film ever had any bigger ambitions.
Thus, if you think of yourself as a fan of well crafted crap thrillers like Hannibal (2001) and The Bone Collector (1999), you’re gonna love Prisoners. If your tastes are elevated and you’re a fan of Seven (1995), Silence of the Lambs (1991), or Zodiac, you’re going to be more than disappointed. Finally, if I ever hear you equate Prisoners with Zodiac, I’m going to revoke your movie privileges.