The contemporary puzzle-piece thriller often adopts two frameworks. There’s the Memento state-of-mind, where emphasis is placed on tinkering with narrative presentation and providing information to audiences in a very methodical and deliberate way. Structured to warrant a second viewing as a means to capture all the tiny nuances and slips of detail, these films often lack a human anchor as preoccupations with narrative flourishes often supersede character development. The other (and superior) branch of genre filmmaking can be best found in a film like David Fincher’s Zodiac, where emphasis is on both character and detail. Fincher’s other films, most notably Se7en and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, adhere to this sensibility as well, and though successful, don’t quite measure up to Zodiac. The reason being is that Zodiac, with all its formal grace, is a film stripped down to its bare essentials. Obsession, anxieties, and fears are the sweeping emotional terrain that Fincher covers and with those thematic markers in place he’s afforded the chance develop character and period details.
Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners is a film that doesn’t necessary reject the two frameworks, but rather nestles in the dark crevice between them. This proves problematic, with Villeneuve becoming something of a twisted craftsman. He’ll tinker with perception, going down a methodical route only to deploy red herrings to fuck with expectations. Aiming for both, Prisoners can’t seem to settle on whether it wants to arouse anxiety out of its procedural elements or illicit confusion from its twists and turns.
With Keller’s (Hugh Jackman) hushed voice reciting The Lord’s Prayer at the opening of Prisoners, Villeneuve carefully implicates notions of spirituality and patriarchal expectations within the opening minutes of his film. And the combination of the two that speaks volumes as to how the narrative moves from there. In the midst of a Thanksgiving get together with neighbors, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis - underutilized but exceptional in their roles - the two families discover that both their daughters have gone missing. Seen alone on Thanksgiving sharing friendly banter with a waitress, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case and soon uncovers a suspect. When questioning the suspect proves to be a dead end, his release prompts outrage from Keller, whose paternal instincts tell him that the suspect is indeed the kidnapper. The film is then divided into two schools of thought: the scientific reasoning of Detective Loki and the brute force of Keller’s emotional and spiritual instincts. It’s an interesting dichotomy, particularly given the spiritual elements that are invited sparingly throughout the picture. But it’s also a structure that proves to be a disservice to the characters themselves. Halving the screen time of its two co-leads, Prisoners’ characters are defined broadly, where their actions are predicated by habits rather than real behavior.
It’s Gyllenhaal who gives the more finessed performance, cutting through the heavy emotional baggage with a particular kind of confident humor that doesn’t call too much attention to itself. Other components to the picture, most notably Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, capture the despair associated with the film’s narrative. A rain-soaked race to a hospital sequence will surely enter Deakins’ best-of portfolio when it’s all said and done, though the whole picture proves to be an immaculate exercise for the DP.
Reservations on the film’s problematic two-prong approach notwithstanding, Prisoners’ trappings are right up my alley. While I’m not entirely sold on Villeneuve’s sensibility quite yet, there’s no doubt that there’s confidence in his craft. The autumn promises a slew of difficult and emotionally exhaustive portraits of people in duress (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave to name a few). Prisoners is a start, albeit not a very welcoming one.