Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eyes Wide Open: Prisoners


Does the end justify the means? Elements of Zero Dark Thirty thrown into a suburban child-kidnapping tale. Add elements of Silence of the Lambs and The Vanishing.


During the first third of this film, the cinematography and the naturalistic performances of a great ensemble cast kept my eyes painfully wide open as I sat on the edge of my seat. I love the shots seen through frosty or rain-streaked windows. I felt I was viewing one of the most sharply lucid and realistic films ever made.

When some bargain-price retirees started to narrate what was happening on screen (Shot: The police release the suspect (Paul Dano) from jail. Retiree: "They're releasing him!") I relocated to the unoccupied front section and embraced the wonderful images framed by Roger Deakins.

When the film wanders into literal basements of perversion and goes stereotypically lurid, I was disappointed but still riveted by the camerawork, the ominous musical score, and the film's dense sense of approaching doom.


Jake Gyllenhaal's affectations tend to irk me, but here his understated, scowling delivery fits right in. He is superb. Jackman is still invested in Valjean. Viola Davis is excellent. The cast is a strong one though I would have loved to see what they could have done with a more grounded, realistic story about families reacting to a kidnapping.


The cinematography makes just about every shot chillingly, exquisitely memorable. The best moments are in the film's first third, before Inspector Loki (Gyllenhaal) makes his first descent into a dark basement.


I need to see this again for the cinematography, also because the plot gets too convoluted for its own good, and I want to clear up some viewing quandaries.

For me, the first third of this film is the most riveting movie experience in years!


Steve's Blog said...

Cinematography, yes! Acting, Good! Story, not quite sure!

The first third is the best part of the film. The middle torture porn sequences were uncomfortable and not as dramatic as the film would like us to believe. The acting was strong on Jackman's part (Valjean in flannel) and Gyllenhal. Though Maria Bello was near-laughable at times.

I am somewhat offended by the scope and length of the film as the narrative promises a moral complexity and spiritual dilemma that simply wasn't there. There were only admittedly neat plot twists that could have been played out in two hours. I wanted to be more drawn in by the characters, but found myself strangely detached and uncaring as to their fate. Thus the film failed to move me on a deeper level.

Nevertheless, the technical aspects were notable and striking and kept me engaged throughout.

By the way, I like and respect your new format of review during a busy time of year!

Hokahey said...

Steve - Thanks! Glad you saw it! That was fast! We are agreed on the first third!

This is well-said: I am somewhat offended by the scope and length of the film as the narrative promises a moral complexity and spiritual dilemma that simply wasn't there. There are smatterings of that moral complexity and spiritual dilemma but they get diluted and overshadowed by psycho-serial killer crap. Any film that has a psycho living in a house with walls covered with doodles cuts itself down ten notches! Please! No more!

Another laughable bit: "Did you get the license plate number?" Just then the car TURNS IN FRONT OF the sales-girl calling the inspector! Ah, the license plate numbers!

The first third - more of the same - no psychos - no torture porn - and this could have been an amazing film.

Jason Bellamy said...

The first third is strongest. The second third is solid (cliche, sure). The final third is just silly -- although not so much that it ruins the entire experience, and the high-speed drive to the emergency room is straight out of Michael Mann.

In short: This movie has atmosphere and it's well acted. Even when characters are doing things that don't make much sense (and that make even less sense upon reflection) it still pretty much works. I haven't seen a lot of mainstream movies this year, but I'm pretty sure this is the first one that hasn't made me check my watch, at least figuratively speaking. There's a lot to be said for establishing and maintaining a tone and delivering a story that is logical enough but just mysterious enough to keep the audience engaged. Don't get me wrong, I won't remember this movie; but it held my attention while I was there, and that's proving rare these days.

I absolutely loved the approach to Gyllenhaal's character. The guy's a cop with slick-back hair and tattoos on his neck and fingers. He's the guy you expect to be reckless, to go rogue, to flip everyone attitude. Instead, except near the very end, he's the only guy who keeps his cool, the only guy who sees the big picture. Even when he's bitching at his commander for not communicating with him, he's professional about it. For all the cliches that pop-up (the DIY maze wallpaper, for instance) Gyllenhaal's character DESTROYS a cliche.

Davis needs better roles, but she's solid as always. Jackman takes an unbelievable character and makes him pretty believable. Bello has nothing to work with and looks appropriately lost.

More thoughts in a spoiler filled post ...

Jason Bellamy said...

So, the plot ...


Let me get this straight:

* The kid in the van had a traumatic experience with snakes in his youth.

* The weirdo with the snakes had some sort of exposure to the predatory family.

* Whether the snake link is meaningful is never explained, if it is a link at all.

* The snake guy definitely is crazy. The guy in the van only might be crazy.

* The guy in the van (Dano's character, but I like "guy in the van" better) either accidentally or tauntingly tips his hand to Jackman's character only to then say nothing whatsoever through days of torture -- either scenario seeming incredibly unlikely.

* The maze guy is a copycat predator of sorts. The maze doesn't actually turn out to have anything to do with the location of the girls -- it just tips the hand to the main (dead) predator's custom necklace.

* The van guy is presumed not guilty ... but still the best suspect. He disappears and no one cares. That leaves no strong suspect. And at this point the crazed survivalist guy figures it won't look fishy if he's coming and going at 2:30 am every night, even though parents are likely suspects in child disappearance cases.

* I realize that crazy people have crazy motives, but dramatically speaking it was quite a letdown to wind up with this grandmotherly villain who narrates her motivations and personal history (er, sort of) like in a SCOOBY DOO episode. (And if it wasn't for those damn kids, she really would have gotten away with it.)

Hokahey said...

Jason - thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed the first third - and, I agree, the silliness of the final chapter does not ruin the very strong and moody opening act. Atmosphere goes a long way here - and still, despite the silliness at the end, the film demands your attention.

Definitely the convoluted plot demands your attention, and I'm glad you included a list of plot points in an attempt to get things straight in your head. I'm fuzzy on the house where the snake guy lives. Didn't it belong to someone else? And a little boy disappeared near there? And this little boy is Paul Dano's character's brother?

As for the grandmotherly villain narrating her history
- that was awkward. You'd think in all that time the tough deer-hunting survivalist would be able to think of some way to distract her and get that little gun away from her.

Something that really bothers me is that the survivalist can hardly afford his mortgage but he's bought all that very expensive survival stuff, including gas masks - and in the old apartment building, he's got multiple expensive spotlights on tripods. Is that WHY he can hardly pay the mortgage? Perhaps, but that should be hinted at - otherwise, it sticks out as a glaring error.