You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.
In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.
The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?
Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.
And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.