A Great Film Lacking Greatness: "Prisoners"
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A Great Film Lacking Greatness: "Prisoners"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | September 20, 2013 | Comments ()


“Prisoners” is exceptionally good at what it sets out to do. It is two and a half hours of pure tension, darkness, and puzzling, that at no point feels like it is too long. It draws you into this harrowing story of children gone missing.

The camera work is superb, which is something that I almost never notice in television or film, being that I’m generally completely oblivious to such things. And so the camera tracks in at an odd angle so it’s a reflection that you see, or it moves smoothly around on a corner a beat after a character so that you see a revelation as if you walked around the corner too, or a hellish dark cell with a single hole is shot so that it looks exactly like the view from within a dark confessional booth, or viewing a raging man from above so that the camera catches the clue the audience has already figured out just inches from the man who hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s never obtrusive, not showing off, just masterful work to always show you the best view of what’s happening.

That unobtrusive but brilliant camera work is a microcosm for the entire film’s production. The actors have enormous amounts of emotion to work with, but never feel like they’re chewing scenery. And this has a fantastic cast, with Jake Gyllnehaal and Hugh Jackman doing most of the heavy lifting. The characters are rendered three-dimensional with details that define them, but do not define their actions. The story is absolutely engrossing, with genuine mystery building all the way up until the end, as more and more pieces are added but only gradually making greater sense. The film uses its dialog and scenes sparingly, trusting the viewer to piece together what’s happening with little exposition, ensuring that each scene, however mundane at first, reveals bits and pieces of clues and information.

At 150 minutes, the film is one continuous slow burn. It is a masterpiece of restraint. Restraint in pacing, restraint in acting, restraint in plot. It never turns that corner that thrillers in particular seem addicted to of ramping-up, dropping-off, ramping-up, dropping-off, until the next ramping-up drags suspension of disbelief off of a cliff. It continuously backs off from showing the climaxes of horror and joy, forcing you to imagine those, rendering them far more fully than could be done on screen.

I cannot stress enough, just how well this film was made, with every aspect of it representing directors, actors, writers, and production staff working at the pinnacle of their field.

And yet, here comes the “but” that was tickling the back of brain as I left the movie.

Yet at the same time, the movie feels like it is missing something. You know how every once and a while, you’ll be watching one of the better procedurals on television, one of the more serious and grounded ones like “Criminal Minds”, and it lands a sucker punch of an episode avoiding all the procedural cliches, over focus on the main characters, and just tells a damned brutal story? Those episodes that you feel like looking up the writer of because the episode is so well told that the actual characters and context of the series are irrelevant, and the story really could have been told identically on any of a dozen shows with the same effect?

“Prisoners” plays out that way. It feels like the greatest, darkest, most breathlessly tense episode of a procedural that you have ever seen.

But it doesn’t seem to have anything underlying that. This might be nitpicking, or maybe I just missed the point myself, but I didn’t get the gist of any theme to it, any reason the story was being told, any metaphors to pull out and dissect. The greatest films are the ones that are made as well as “Prisoners” but spark in you a dozen ideas, a clattered conversation at the coffee shop afterwards with friends, each person’s musings starting with some variation of “but what it was really about”.

“Prisoners” did not do that for me. It wasn’t nihilistic, it wasn’t making a point of there being no point or some such thing. There are strands I can start to pick at, the title being one, as different sorts of prisoners recur through the story, but each thread I start to pull quickly spins itself out and doesn’t interconnect with the others. Perhaps its themes are there, but are too subtle to be yanked out so discretely but my awkward mental fingers.

Go see it. It’s worth the watching and then some. And then tell me if I am missing a deeper reading.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • ,

    I wanted this to be good, and I trusted SLW's judgment, but I can't help feeling let down. SPOILERS COMING, if you haven't figured that out.



    For one thing, some very fine actors got shoved to the background and wasted. How much more interesting this would have been if Keller had become a sobbing, drugged-up bedridden mess and Grace had taken matters into her own hands. Even MORE interesting (and perhaps racially charged) if the black family had been the protagonists.

    For another, for a supposed smart cop who has never not solved a case (we're told), Loki does some amazingly stupid shit. Like sitting at the red light watching Keller while the inevitable truck pulls up behind him and lays on the horn, alerting Keller that he's there. You're idling at a red light on a public street, dumbass. You think you can sit there all day?

    And beating on a suspect during interrogation while wearing a gun. I'm just asking here for any cops in the crowd: If you had your gun pulled from you and used in a suicide while you were roughing up a suspect during interrogation, wouldn't you AT LEAST have been put on suspension and office duty during an internal investigation? But Loki just goes about his business.

    I lost the suspension of disbelief there, and we were still far from the whack job of an ending. I had to look up the synopsis when I got home because I couldn't quite believe I'd correctly heard the villain's rationale for the carnage. Having read it, I still can't quite believe it.

    The underlying theme is so blatantly obvious from the title that I can't blame SLW for thinking there MUST be something deeper, it just can't be that simple.

    But it is: We're ALL prisoners!

    As for the characters, they were all idiots, too.

  • Joeff

    Well, without spoiling, there were several characters who endured the extreme emotional trial of losing children, and reacted in, shall we say, contrasting ways.

  • TheAggroCraig

    At some point in this movie a character walks a dog, then picks up the dog by the leash which is attached to its collar. This was shown on screen twice. Both times I heard people laughing in my theater. Did I just watch a movie with a couple of serial killers?

  • Anniescam

    I don't think we had any laughers in the audience, but I for one, gasped and thought that particular scene was just so chilling.

  • Aratweth

    The exact same thing happened in my viewing! I suspect it was that sort of nervous "surely this isn't actually happening" giggle, but that doesn't make me hate them for it any less.

  • Nyltiak

    I left this movie feeling sort of like I did after seeing Killer Joe. Also, I'd never have believed a movie could make me hate Hugh Jackman as much as this one did. I liked it a lot, but I thought the motivation behind the villain was... awkward and ill-fitting.

  • John G.

    you say here comes the "but", but then you start the next sentence with a "yet". Clever, Steven, very clever.

  • manting

    as a descendant of Norse warriors I was sure you would comment on the fact that Jake G plays DT Loki.

  • junierizzle

    I thought it was great. I liked it a lot. There is something that the Villain did towards the end that didn't fit the level of execution as the rest of the film but it wasn't enough to derail the entire thing for me.

    As for what it means, I don't know. My friend said it was really about religion but the only parallel he could really find was the box Jackman made was like a confessional. And there is that shot of the cross in the beginning.

    I know movies are great when they "mean" something but it doesn't really matter. If It's well-made and entertaining then that should be enough. What is The Godfather about? Goodfellas?

  • Al Borland's Beard

    No thanks. If I wanted to watch Hugh Jackman without claws and with a shirt, I'd of watched the 2011 Oscars.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    "And then tell me if I am missing a deeper reading."

    Does it need one? Is not telling a good story good enough?

  • Dragonchild

    I think you missed the point. Plinkett has asked a similar question when famously critiquing the Star Wars prequels: "Was this a story that needed to be told?"

    That doesn't mean a story has to have a moral or seek to inform; rather, by the end of the film you should understand why the story is worth retelling. A story can lack distinction, substance or importance. In Plinkett's case, the prequels fail because they lack substance. In this case, I guess the story lacks distinction. It's more apparent as a counterexample, where TVTropes' "Shoot the Shaggy Dog" shows how a story can be profound for the characters but otherwise senseless.

    I think SLW here is saying that if there WAS a reason for this story to exist, it's buried deep enough that he didn't catch it upon a first viewing.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    A story can be worth telling because it's a good story.

    SW I-III needed to be told (as in how does Darth Vader come into being and the Jedi order fall), but the storytelling sucked.

  • c612o6

    Saw this yesterday, and I agree.
    Looking at the cinematography, sound, and the acting of Gyllenhaal and Jackman, it was a great movie. As you wrote, the pacing was also quite good. The only thing betraying the two and a half hour runtime was the number of plot threads the film ran down to their explicit ends. The story is ultimately what ruins the film.
    Without getting spoilery, it just seemed that the story was uncomfortable with being too small, to banal, and so it injects sensationalism where it wasn't called for. If the film hadn't spent so much time methodically justifying its more elaborate turns, we could have had a taut 100 minute movie about fear, loss, and the untenable path of avenging justice.
    Instead we got a good episode of CSI, one that has great acting from the guest stars, heavy emotional content, darker themes, but it's still all wrapped up neatly by the end, with enough colorful bits to keep the casual audience engaged. We can turn in for the night without any nagging questions. The End.

  • junierizzle

    I wouldn't exactly say that the ending was "wrapped up neatly."

  • blacksred

    from the first trailer for this movie it makes me uncomfortable. i know this is a great movie but even as a not yet parent i cant take it. kill maim kidnap all the stupid jocks and bimbos you want but not kids and with the way the world is today with real life too close to this no thank you. I am still upset over hostage w bruce willis

  • $27019454

    This topic is one of my film kryptonites: No mayhem, no downward drug spirals, no Vietnam, NO CHILD-IN-PERIL. And this is since having kids. Before that, I was all about the freakshows. So I am semi-sad I will not be seeing this because your review is tantalizing and compelling.

    I guess I lose again. But at least I'll sleep.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    And animals.

  • Things happening to kids is my one and only film qualm and I don't even have kids. I can sit and watch some brutal shit happen to adults and not blink an eye, but the minute kids get involved I gotta turn it off.

  • Jifaner

    This is one of those movies that as a parent, I can't handle. The previews make me feel ill, and I'm not one that normally gets that way with movies or TV. Maybe the acting is just too good and it feels too real.

  • WillSmithSpreadsAids

    Grow a pair woman

  • TK

    This. I am so right there with you. The trailers alone made me want to walk out of the room. I just don't think I'm ready for it.

    Dustin warned me that having a kid would fuck up the way I watch movies. Sonofabitch was right, and I hate when that happens.

  • Note to self: the quality of movies to which I am assigned appears to be proportional to the number of psychological complexes possessed by my fellow writers. Finding a good book on psychological warfare should be a priority.

  • pajiba

    I just got out myself and completely agree. Jake was particularly fantastic, but I couldn't help but think I'd have done the same thing as Hugh's character. Or at least, I'd like to think I was capable. I couldn't decide if that made me a monster or not. Maybe that's the question the movie is posing: Could you do what he did? And should you?

    Goddamn. I'm gonna go buy GPS chips for my kids now.

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