Man, did any of you read my review of The Place Beyond the Pines? It was a while back, a few months. I made a point in my opening paragraph about how that movie starred Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, two men who are widely considered among the most attractive alive, and how that was sort of unfair to all the swooning girls who went to see the movie, because it just wasn’t particularly fun, and neither actor played that dreamy a character. Well, that happened again this week. I saw this movie in the company of a friend whose two most prominent celebrity crushes happened to play the two leads. I felt really bad for her, because this was neither the movie she wanted nor the one she needed.
The Plot: One Thanksgiving, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) go missing. In the following days their fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) desperately investigate as the police search, headed by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), turns up little. As Loki attempts to do his job within the bounds of the law, Keller becomes more and more willing to test his own moral beliefs in the effort to locate his missing child.
Yeah, so maybe I should have told my friend that plot, and maybe I should have shown her the trailer, and maybe I should have warned her that it was going to be unpleasant, but I didn’t think it would be as unpleasant as it was. Is now a good time for that, Other Chris? Yeah, I think it is. Introducing: the Sadness Scale. The author of the Tuesday Zone and I were preparing ourselves for Prisoners and trying to guess how sad it would be. In the process we invented the Sadness Scale, which rates movies on a scale of 0-10 on how sad or unpleasant they are, where zero is The Princess Bride and ten is Take Shelter. For more reference, Roman Holiday is a one, Oldboy is a nine, The Place Beyond the Pines is a seven, Mud is a five, Pacific Rim is probably a two, etc. Please note that this scale does not apply to children’s movies. That is a different scale, where Winnie the Pooh is a zero and The Land Before Time is a ten.
Prisoners is an eight.
Actually, for most of the movie it is a firm, solid, totally harrowing nine, but it winds up an eight. Otherwise, this is an excessively bleak movie. It is grounded in an aggressively unpleasant realism. Children disappear, and everyone knows what that means and what it means if the children do not turn up again within a week. That’s grim. That level of grim—that kind of Scandinavian grim—is dangerous. You want to avoid what I am now calling Top of the Lake syndrome, where you’re grim to the point of being bland because everything that happens is terrible and none of the characters are that interesting, because bad things happen to them and they do bad things in response. Prisoners narrowly avoids this common affliction. Much like the other seriously heavy drama about child abduction I recently reviewed, Gone Baby Gone (probs a seven), Prisoners functions well because at its core it is really focused on the characters and their moral quandaries.
As implied, the two main characters are Keller and Loki. Their arcs are separate, but comparable, though they are not foils for one another. Keller is driven by unadulterated emotion. He turns from determination to ferocity to flat-out wrath. This arc is well-developed alongside a calculated religious presence in the film. Most of the characters (especially Keller) are practicing Catholics, so typical Christian and secular definitions of right, wrong, justice, mercy, and redemption are constantly at odds with each other. The film does not take sides, condemning one ideology over the other, but rather it acknowledges the numerous strengths and weaknesses of each. This comes as a pretty nice break from what has become a standard “Catholics are crazy and bad” trope. So, as Keller’s faith in God is tested, so is Loki’s faith in himself and in the legal system. Each man is tested on his own terms, Keller as a Christian and Loki (who is notably named for a pagan entity) as a government agent. They will need to meet on a middle ground in order to succeed at all.
Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal deserve Oscar nominations for their performances. Actually, pretty much everyone in this ensemble cast (including Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo) delivers a performance worthy of some level of awards recognition. It will be interesting to see if this movie gets the recognition it deserves or if it came out just a tad too early for the Oscars to remember it, because no one suffers from short attention spans like the Academy. The ingenuity and realism of the actors function well alongside the beautifully grey direction from Denis Villeneuve. Both elements are exactly what Aaron Guzikowski’s original screenplay needed. Everyone I’ve mentioned so far in this review in connection to this film did their job well and should be praised for that. Though Prisoners was an incredibly unpleasant film, and I am in no hurry to re-watch it, it has earned its slot in the awards running. Will it live up to the buzz or will everyone forget about it by the end of the year? I don’t know.
There is one thing about Prisoners that really bewilders me. I’m utterly confused by it and the movie itself didn’t clear anything up. In fact, the movie only confused me more on this particular point. The big resounding mystery for me is how, in any reality, was Prisoners ever number one at the U.S. box office for a week. I mean, what? How? Kafwug?