Prisoners, a kidnap drama directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a triumph of mood, a showpiece for its actors, and an absolute failure of storytelling. It gives me no pleasure to announce that the first major “prestige” release of the traditional fall movie season is a letdown.
It’s Thanksgiving, and two families gather for a relaxed meal in their suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood. After dinner the kids get restless; the youngest daughters from each family head outside to play and don’t come back – and even after police quickly identify and detain a sufficiently creepy suspect (Paul Dano), they can’t get him to admit his guilt or the girls’ location. What follows is a nightmare for parents and film critics: We’re led on a circuitous odyssey of despair and impotent rage, as one dad (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps and tortures the suspect while the lead investigator (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts following other leads.
Villeneuve and ace cinematographer Richard Deakins (Skyfall) magnificently establish their environment – you can feel the early-winter chill in your bones – and create a palpably bleak ambience that will sap the happiness out of the most upbeat moviegoer. (Given the subject matter, this only sounds like a failure: These craftsmen really know how to use their tools.) But they, and their actors, are sabotaged by Aaron Guzikowski’s script. Somewhere in this two-and-a-half-hour film is a primal story about the banality of evil and the ability of good people to be corrupted by grief – but it’s unrecognizable beneath the weight of all the hand-wringing, and a denouement that reduces the film to just another tepid thriller.
Had the film lived up to its look, or to the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhaal, Prisoners could have been one of those utterly powerful film experiences that few people enjoy but everyone admires. As it is, it’s the first disappointment of Autumn.
(Photo credit: Warner Bros./Alcon Entertainment)