Prisoners ★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Jackman, borderline revelatory in The Prestige as a man increasingly desperate to avenge (and come to terms with) a personal loss, is strangely flat here. Unlike in Nolan’s film, he registers little other than anger, or something resembling it, in the immediate aftermath of his daughter's disappearance. We see him, as teetotal (?) family man Keller Dover, in the opening scene teaching his son how to hunt deer, and there are multiple references thereafter to issues of responsibility (domestic) and culpability (social, institutional), both framed through the question of what it might mean to be a man.

And so Keller kidnaps and tortures prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano), released due to a lack of evidence, in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of his daughter (he holes him up in a makeshift shower that is later framed like a confessional booth, paralleling an earlier plot point to do with vigilante violence meted out following a literal confession). Jackman is tasked with carrying this emotional default for much of the film, which is kind of bizarre. It's fine to make a film in which nobody is particularly likeable, and it's fine to make a film in which, under extreme stress, these people make bewildering, even far-fetched, decisions. But emotions are dialectical things, and as both a kidnap thriller and a moral drama this film places its interests in the wrong kinds of counterbalance (consider, again, that shower-confessional booth parallel, as clever as it is ultimately superficial: where's the emotional resonance?).

I don’t buy it, somehow. I don’t buy Jackman’s anger, his all-out need to fulfil the self-assumed mantle of protective patriarch—possibly because there’s no build-up in the desperation, nothing to assert him as a man who might have to grapple with vigilantism as a thing of consequence. (The film’s most powerful, moment, I think, is when Villeneuve first cuts to Dano’s horribly swollen, defencelessly battered face—underlining in a single image the savagery of Keller's pursuit of justice.) Whereas in The Fountain Jackman could counter hubris (his character’s naïve defiance of death) with heartrending vulnerability (refusing to accept losing a loved one), here he is given no such room; the one time he’s able to do the whole trembly-lip grief thing—made even more meaningful because it coincides with Keller’s realisation that he’s been torturing the wrong guy—he follows it up by placing the blame on Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki.

Gyllenhaal, at least, is given a little more range to play with than his co-star—though I have to laugh in retrospect, given all other evidence in the film, at the notion that Loki (low-key?) has never not solved a case. Given how busy the frills get elsewhere, there was presumably a story behind the detective’s neck-and-knuckle tattoos and his blink-twitch, but his characterisation is in line with the film’s dramatic approach as a whole: it feels blocked out rather than fleshed out. In fact the whole film feels weirdly miscast, as if none of the performers was asked to adjust to the local nuances of the suburban setting (I felt the same, to a much lesser extent, watching Manchester By the Sea).

The key, I think, is that Keller’s actions aren’t at all transformative for him: where are the dramatic stakes? This doesn’t have to be a film about the moral costs of vigilantism—though I think some clue as to its thematic ambitions is to be found at the very least in the title—but then if it isn’t, why bother? The dual-thrust ticking-clock narrative—where you have Keller’s means-to-an-end torture unfolding in parallel to Loki’s police investigation—certainly seems to be creeping towards something to do with the moral issues involved, but in the end this reveals itself as a preposterous thriller, cheap thrills and all, dressed as a sprawlingly serious drama. Or vice versa.

Once you write your way into a hole, of course, you then have to write your way out. Both suspects here turn out themselves to be traumatised victims: one has the IQ of a 10-year-old and the other has a fetish for children’s toys and drawing charcoal mazes. Isn’t it meant to matter that the latter has a decent car and a decent-size home but in every other way seems to be very much the kind of person incapable of holding down the kind of job necessary for both? At any rate, the twist comes, or is confirmed, when the real villain not only outs herself, but then belabouredly explains everything to Keller—who is suddenly an audience surrogate held at gunpoint. He is thrown into a black hole and will whistle for help when the coast is clear. Give over.