There was a certain type of hand-wringing Hollywood melodrama that became briefly inescapable shortly after 9/11, during the walk-up to the Iraq War. Filmmakers preoccupied with revenge and its consequences focused inward, none too subtly playing out global concerns on a domestic stage. In the Bedroom got there early, and Eastwood’s Mystic River was probably the best of the bunch. Meanwhile, a rash of already-forgotten also-rans like 21 Grams, Reservation Road and Snow Angels throbbed with doomy grandeur, thrusting average ‘Mericans into dour, no-exit narratives staring long into the abyss, with tedious results.
At least for the first couple of reels, Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners feels like a throwback to this genre that nobody particularly missed. In a bleak Pennsylvania town where it rains all the time, Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover takes his son deer hunting while gravely intoning ominous wisdom and prayer. It’s Thanksgiving Day, yet it remains difficult for us to celebrate with the Dover family because the camera angles loom low, and a pervasive, menacing hum all but drowns out their dialogue. Neighbor Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) plays an off-key version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, letting you know up front that this movie is going to be incredibly restrained. And all that’s before the youngest Dover and Birch daughters go missing after dinner.
A ramshackle RV was spotted in the neighborhood earlier that afternoon. It’s owned by a creepy simpleton (Paul Dano) with the IQ of a child and questionable personal hygiene. Jackman’s mad-as-hell Dover, already kicking at full Sean Penn “Is that my daughter in there?” steam, is convinced this kid must be the culprit. But Detective Loki (no shit, that’s really his name) ain’t so sure.
Here we must stop and note that Loki is played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a collection of such bizarre actorly tics that most of the time, he seems to be doing an extremely mean-spirited impression of Ryan Gosling. Walking slow and staring blankly with an ever-present toothpick in his mouth, Gyllenhaal has no character whatsoever to play on the page, so he shoves all his chips into the center of the table with weird affectations that do nothing for the film except maybe make you wonder about the PA police force’s lax policy on scary neck tattoos.
As always happens in this type of movie, Jackman is driven to take the law into his own hands. Truth the told, I’d probably do the same if the investigating officer in my daughter’s abduction carried on like a bondage-club bouncer with Asperger’s Syndrome. Before long, Dover has kidnapped Dano’s whimpering weirdo, chained the kid to a radiator and is beating his face into paste as an advanced interrogation technique. Then he drops to his knees and prays for forgiveness because it’s that kind of movie.
So, the table is set for a classic guilt-feast of becoming a monster to fight monsters—another glum, familiar parable of grief driving good men to bad deeds. Yet this is only the beginning, folks. Turns out Prisoners is just getting warmed up.
Taking a sharp-left turn into Crazy Town and stomping on the gas, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski ups the ante with an alcoholic pedophile priest who keeps the moldering corpse of a child killer in his smelly basement. There are buried, mutilated child mannequins, a secret code involving mazes with no end that’s all part of an organized “war against God,” and even actual booby-traps filled with poisonous snakes. If all this still doesn’t sound hambone goofy enough for you, Melissa Leo is in the picture.
I think it is somewhere around the moment when Hugh Jackman builds a Home Depot torture chamber that Prisoners goes bonkers. Honestly, the glum portent becomes a lot more watchable after losing its goddamned mind. (I wasn’t aware so many homes in Pennsylvania come equipped with underground dungeons and lairs. Realtors should stress that more often.) Guzikowski’s screenplay is so elaborately convoluted and icky, I was shocked to discover it was an original idea and not an adaptation. Everything about this story structure stinks of a shitty novel somebody bought at an airport.
But it must be said that this is one gobsmackingly gorgeous pile of garbage. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins recently made the jump to digital, and as with last year’s Skyfall, he’s expanding the boundaries of low-light photography using practical sources. A candlelight vigil for the missing girls is illuminated with an almost heavenly glow, while a late-movie race against time, shot from inside Detective Loki’s speeding car in the rain (of course it’s raining) blurs into a poetic abstraction of blown-out streetlights and blurred neon signs. The man is an artist, and Prisoners is one of the best-looking stupid movies I’ve ever seen.