Saturday, September 21, 2013

Torture Porn: Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners

Hugh Jackman & Jake Gyllenhaal

During Prisoners I felt like I’d been strapped to my chair and was being whipped around through a house of horrors I hadn't signed on for. The director, the Qu├ębecois Denis Villeneuve, is extremely accomplished, and the movie is beautifully made, with sequences that are marvels of suspense and mood. He’s working with a superb cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and with a talented cast who create distinctive, interesting characters. But everyone is at the service of material – Aaron Guzikowski’s script – that amounts to the worst sort of gut-wrenching manipulation, sold to us as a meaningful disquisition on evil and how the loss of a child can diminish one’s humanity. Prisoners is a cheap thriller dressed up to look like an important movie, its 150-minute length offered as proof of prestige. It’s loathsome.

Set in rural Pennsylvania, the movie begins with the kidnaping of two little girls on Thanksgiving. The families, one white and one black, are best of friends and neighbors: Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello), Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Their little girls play together and their teenagers are close. When the first likely suspect – a mentally challenged young man named Alex Jones (a spooky performance by Paul Dano) who is driving the RV the teens saw parked outside during a pre-dinner walk with the children – is released for lack of evidence, Keller takes the case into his own hands. He kidnaps Alex at gunpoint and imprisons him in the now boarded-up house he grew up in. There he beats, tortures and presumably starves the boy for a week, while Franklin and eventually Nancy make feeble moral objections but are so desperate for any action that might possibly bring their daughters home that they allow Keller to go on. (Grace is confined to her bed, doped up on tranquilizers.) Meanwhile the detective on the case, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), pursues other leads. A visit to one of several registered sex offenders in the area, a one-time priest (Len Cariou), turns up, in his cellar, a moldering corpse of a man the priest claims he incarcerated after the man had confessed to sixteen child murders. A shaky young man (David Dastmalchian) at a neighborhood vigil for the kids catches Loki’s attention and then gets away through the woodsy backyards.


At first Prisoners is reminiscent of the first season of the American television version of The Killing. The varieties of grief behavior demonstrated by the four bereft parents recall the way Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, the two superb actors who played the Larsens, whose adolescent daughter’s body is found in the opening episode, conveyed the combination of helplessness, depression and anger that laid them low. Jackman, Davis and Howard all have fine moments – when Loki shows up at her door, Davis’s Nancy sits at the table still laid for the feast, unable to get herself on her feet or even to make eye contact with the detective – but Bello, as a woman who immediately falls apart under the weight of her loss and anxiety, is extraordinary. Curled up on her bed, sobbing, she blames her husband for failing the family when he’s always led them to believe he could protect them from anything. Keller’s motto is “Pray for the best and prepare for the worst”; his basement is a survivalist’s hoard. Bello gives us the sense of an essentially childlike woman who’s always been happy to deliver herself over to her husband’s strength and who has none of her own to fall back during at a time of crisis. Gyllenhaal’s Loki is a dogged, obsessive gumshoe, the kind who hangs onto a case like a leech until he’s worked it dry and for whom detective work is a sacred calling – like Mireille Enos’s Sarah Linden on The Killing – only unlike Linden, Loki doesn’t just make the other parts of his life suffer when he’s following a lead; he has no other life. (His captain, a man who looks like years of dealing with the ugliness of his job have made him sloppy and cynical – well played by Wayne Duvall – practically begs Loki to find himself a girl.) Gyllenhaal gives a strong performance, his best in a while, despite a distracting eye-blinking tic Villeneuve should have talked him out of.

Viola Davis & Terrence Howard
But on The Killing, Stan Larsen’s going off the rails and arranging for the nearly lethal beating of a suspect in his daughter’s murder (who turns out to be innocent) is only one episode in the trajectory of his and his wife’s mourning – like the heartbreaking one in season two in which his wife Mitch befriends a runaway girl at a motel who becomes a sad temporary fill-in for her daughter. In Prisoners Keller’s abduction of Alex takes over the entire center section of the movie, with two unhappy results. The first is that, even though Villeneuve has too much sensitivity to put most of Alex’s torture on camera, the picture gets wedged in a grim, gray, relentless place; long after we get the point about what grief and fear can drive people to do, it’s still fixated on the misery Keller is putting the boy through. Long after it stops making sense, moreover: if administering beatings with a hammer and sticking him under a scalding shower can’t get Alex to reveal any useful information, you’d think that Keller, who doesn't appear to be an idiot, might think twice about the purpose of what he’s doing. More important is that these scenes unmoor the film. The search for the children loses its momentum, and when the filmmakers finally shift back to it, the two stories feel like they’re in competition for the movie. Structurally Prisoners is a fiasco, but that doesn't stop it from working on you. It holds you by the synthetic power of violence and dread.

I had pretty much had it with the film by the time Loki got Keller into his car in the rain and had to listen to him screaming and pounding his fist into his door in fury over the inability of the cops to find the missing girls. Villeneuve is so terrific with his actors that even some performers in very small roles make vivid impressions, like Cariou and Sandra Ellis Lafferty as the mother of a boy gone for a quarter of a century, who still spends her time glued in front of the television watching old home movies. (The exception is Melissa Leo as Alex’s aunt, who, as usual, can’t read a single line of dialogue or walk across a room without faking it.) But even Villeneuve can’t make anything of this overwrought, monotonous scene between Keller and the detective, and from then on Jackman’s performance is stalled in high gear. At this point I was hoping for a relatively quick resolution to all this unpleasantness, but the plot, as it turns out, is just getting going. Guzikowski has been holding enough twists and turns in reserve for two or three mysteries and he’s determined to tie everything up at the end. (The only base he forgets to touch is the matter of Keller’s father’s suicide, which Loki reads about in an old newspaper clipping but has no function in the plot.) You might admire the screenwriter’s cleverness if it weren't tethered to a load of baroque details – trunks filled with snakes, pig’s heads rotting in the sink, mazes – that just add another repulsive layer to the narrative. Guzikowski might have been better advised to pay attention to the scene-by-scene playing out of the story. I understand that Loki is a loner, but is that supposed to explain why he almost never calls for back-up? In one climactic scene he rescues another character who’s in mortal danger by speeding down a highway in the snow, heedless of his own injury, and we’re obviously meant to see his actions as heroic. But we can’t help thinking that his reckless driving with blood dripping into his eyes almost gets both of them killed – especially since it never occurs to him to turn on his siren. And it’s one thing for Loki to betray his intolerance of his captain’s repeated screw-ups, but I can’t believe there’s a police chief out there who wouldn't at least threaten to discipline him for insolence and disrespect.

Hugh Jackman & Maria Bello

The movie begins with The Lord’s Prayer on the soundtrack – during a deer hunt, and we don’t know who’s reciting it – and when Loki hauls the priest off to the precinct after finding the dead man in his cellar, the priest mutters something about conducting a war with God. The line doesn't resonate until later, when the villain, who has just been identified, explains the kidnaping as a sally in a war against God the aim of which is to make people lose their faith and turn them into demons. That’s about as profound as the Biblical quotations in Se7en or, to reach back earlier, the dramatic action of The Exorcist; it’s just an excuse for putting an audience through as much sadism as Guzikowski thinks he can get away with. But Denis Villeneuve isn't a crapmeister; his last movie was the complex, unresolvable Quebec drama Incendies. Do gifted directors like Villeneuve really convince themselves that a script that makes ersatz philosophical statements like that one is really profound? At the climax of the movie the kidnapper traps a wounded Keller in the same hole in the ground that once held his daughter and anticipates throwing her body in too while he’s still alive to see it. That’s not a glimpse into the depths of evil; it’s the most disgusting kind of exploitation.

Whatever I think of the script, I'm assuming that Villeneuve was drawn to the project because he believed it was worth exploring how decent people in the throes of a terrifying situation they’re helpless to alter can behave like monsters (Keller) or condone monstrous behavior (Franklin and Nancy, to varying degrees). But that’s a dramatic trap, because the moment Keller ties Alex to the radiator with duct tape across his mouth and Franklin fails to prevent him from brutalizing the boy, in an essential sense the movie is over; the characters can only be diminished from that point. By contrast consider Brian De Palma’s great, anguished Vietnam War movie Casualties of War, in which four soldiers kidnap, rape and murder a Vietnamese village girl. The focus of the film isn't on Meserve (Sean Penn), the charismatic platoon sergeant who loses his moral compass when he sees his best friend shot down in front of him, but on Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), the one soldier in the patrol who refuses to participate. Not on the moral question of how he should behave (he never even considers joining in) but on his futile attempts to save her and his feelings of guilt over his inability to, and on the consequences of those feelings, which haunt him so much that he demands justice for her against what seem like impossible odds. Eriksson’s horror gives the movie somewhere to go; it also allows us to see the victim, Oanh, through his eyes. In Prisoners Alex is barely a character at all; he’s the object of Keller’s fury and exasperation, a traumatized, inarticulate blob with bloated, half-closed eyes and blood all over his face. I'm sure that Villeneuve doesn't want to dehumanize him but that’s precisely what he winds up doing.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment