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A Great Film Lacking Greatness: "Prisoners"

By Alexander Joenks | Film | September 20, 2013 |

By Alexander Joenks | Film | September 20, 2013 |

“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 You can email him here and order his novel here.