Film Review: Prisoners

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Gone in 60 Seconds

Crime fiction is an invaluable snapshot of contemporary concerns. Therein you’ll find everything that keeps Joe and Jacinda Public up at night. Because the couple have kids there’s few problems more urgent than child abduction and the spectre of predatory paedophilia. In Britain it’s the infamous double murder of Soham friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, two ten year olds who left a family get together for sweets, only to be lured away and murdered by the local school caretaker, that most closely parallels the opening act of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Every western country has its own signature case.

If Soham inspired this movie, writer Aaron Guzikowski was content to let it be mere raw material. Prisoners is no police procedural; it has little interest in the reality of child abduction cases. This is a thriller in the purest sense – a sombre noir, employing a suitably subdued colour palate from master cinematographer Roger Deakins, that incorporates the labyrinthine motif that features throughout into its own morbid architecture. Early on the plot contortions appear implausible and frustratingly incongruous with the no nonsense subject matter, but patience is rewarded as the film shifts into potboiler mode. The more movie-esque it becomes; the thematic links between characters underlined, new mysteries proffered, red herrings chucked in for good measure; the better it gets, until finally we’re in the grip of something absorbing in the airport lounge sense: a story too densely plotted to feel real but too well built to fall over.

Part of that conspicuous design, what fans of verisimilitude would call the clockwork universe problem, is the requirement that all characters be thematically as well as organically connected. Prisoners is a multi-faceted title: it refers to both literal imprisonment, that’s the missing tadpoles and their suspected abductor, whom desperate Dad Hugh Jackman chains to a radiator and beats until he resembles a tomato, and characters manacled to various positions on faith, based on their experiences. We’re invited to see Jackman, a man of deep religious convictions, as part of a daisy chain of damnation linked to the ever blinking Jake Gyllenhaal – a detective damaged by an abusive childhood at a faith school, and the abductor, a God renouncing Satanist. Rather than deepening the material this often feels heavy handed, much like Jackman’s fist pounding performance. It’s also tempting to see it as a fudge; a way of substituting the ugly reality of child abduction, oft rooted in sexual deviance, for a more palatable and less wince inducing commentary on the torn fabric of American civil society. A movie that begins with a mirror held to the headlines ends as an old fashioned and somewhat conservative moral panic.

In the midst of it all lays a curious production note. The end credits inform us that the American Humane Association monitored some of the animal action in the movie and that “no animals were harmed in those scenes”. This is an unusual caveat from an organisation that usually makes a point of keeping an eye on all activity on the movie set. Given there are only two scenes featuring animal cruelty, or indeed animals in the film – the shooting of a deer and a dog hauled into the air and strangled with its lead, we’re left with one last mystery – which was staged? Given the movie’s conservative bent my money’s on the dog, meaning Prisoners is an unlikely snuff movie. Was the film worth a deer’s life? Only you can decide.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 153 mins

Certificate: 15 for Gyllenhaal's blinking, the demonisation of people with glasses and gender and ethnic bias.

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