There are spoilers in this. And this is a movie with actual stuff to be spoiled.
I really enjoyed Prisoners. It wasn’t anything spectacular or unusual or especially ambitious, but who cares. It was two and a half hours long, and held my attention for the whole time. Not only that, but it did a very good job of building and releasing tension, staying unpredictable, and doing all the other things that successful thrillers need to be successful.
I don’t have much to say about the plot. I don’t think it was watertight, but I’m not interested in dissecting it. It won’t go in the pantheon of thriller plots, but I don’t think that’s necessary for a successful movie. I think the goal was to have a character-driven rather than a plot-driven movie. That’s generally a good idea, because there’s a lot more room to maneuver with characters than the plot. If you make the plot the centerpiece, it needs to be perfect and memorable and you need some kind of hook etc. Inception is probably the standard-bearer. If you go down that road people start picking it apart, and no one remembers the acting performances, and if your gimmick or big reveal or whatever isn’t totally mind-blowing and amazing, you’re left with Shutter Island and all people remember is the gimmick. So Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are thrust to the forefront. That’s really the focus of the movie, and I have some comments about each of them.
Hugh Jackman doesn’t usually do the kind of movies I like, so I haven’t seen a lot of his work. I’ve only seen two or three of his movies. I hear he does a lot of stage work. Musicals and such. That really isn’t my thing, but I suppose that’s impressive range. I was not impressed with him in this movie. I can’t decide how much was him and how much was the script. His character is wildly unlikeable. For me at least. That kind of Real America white male who knows that all of society’s problems would be solved if everyone were just more like him. Those guys are out there. I’ve known a few. They’re the worst. I don’t know if we’re supposed to relate to or sympathize with this guy, but I definitely didn’t at any point. Mr. Jackman sure didn’t bring any nuance to the role. A lot of aggressive blustering and self-righteousness, but no sign that he’s acting with any kind of thought and never a hint that he stops to consider that he might be wrong about anything or that anyone else might have a better idea of what to do than him. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to delight in him getting thrown in the pit under the car. But the movie isn’t set up that way. I don’t think that was the intent at all. With a character like that, you’re either dispositionally drawn to him or not. For those of us who aren’t, Mr. Jackman didn’t do anything to get us on his side. Obviously he’s not exactly a hero, and the director, Denis Villeneuve, wants us to stay skeptical of everything, but on some level it has to be the actor’s job to make us understand why his character is doing what he’s doing. The only reason I can think of is that deep down inside, all he is is a jerk.
On the other hand.
I’m a big Jake Gyllenhaal fan. I think he’s great. He doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect from critics or moviegoers, but I don’t understand why he’s not seen as a heavyweight. Maybe he’s still living down Bubble Boy. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, and End of Watch are three big-time Movie Star level performances off the top of my head. I think the reason he’s so good playing cops in End of Watch and Prisoners is that he doesn’t have the same air of impenetrable hardness that Mr. Jackman tried so hard to affect throughout this whole movie. He brings the sense of underlying vulnerability that these men always have. He communicates it so well without needing to say anything. His eyes, the way he carries himself, the considered way he speaks, all the subtle things that don’t draw attention to themselves. That’s where he really separates himself. That he’s able to do all that and simultaneously project the kind of authority that makes him believable is something that not many actors can do. He should be getting better roles and winning awards.
Two smaller roles of note were played by Melissa Leo and Paul Dano. Melissa Leo is another actor who doesn’t get the kind of credit she deserves. And I really like Paul Dano. He didn’t have a lot to work with here, but I think he made it as believable as it could be. And poor Viola Davis. I say Mr. Dano didn’t have a lot to work with–he had far more than Ms. Davis. She deserves better than this. Come to think of it, I would have much rather seen the movie focus on her and Terrence Howard than Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello. Oh well. And one plausibility note. Guys like Hugh Jackman’s character don’t have black friends. That’s all there is to it.
Also of note was the cinematography by Roger Deakins. He’s a treasure. Cinematography is one of those things that I have to consciously focus on and in an absorbing movie like this I miss a lot of it. But this movie looked terrific. The sequence shot from inside the car while Jake G. was driving to the hospital in the rain was amazing. I loved everything about it. That was the highlight of the movie for me.