Prisoners (2013)

★★★★

Prisoners PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: September 20th, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman

There is a great deal of religious allegory laced throughout Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s morbid entry in the child abduction genre (when wouldn’t morbidity factor?). The first voice we hear belongs to Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, who relays the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father” with solemn gruff. Shortly thereafter, the dad of two converses with his son about the need to be prepared for impending natural disasters — floods, subsequent humanitarian crises etc. These early religious influxes glare from the screen, but as the film progresses it is driven by a more subtle assertion: loss of children equals loss of faith, and loss humanity.

Prisoners isn’t really about religion at all. It’s about our mundane and/or extreme reactions to potential tragedy. We follow two men, broadly speaking, each fulfilling his perceived duty in the wake of a double disappearance. Keller Dover is one of those men, whose young daughter and friend go missing on Thanksgiving. Perennial show-stealer Jake Gyllenhaal is the other man, the detective on the case. Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay awards ample development time to the pair of them; just when you think the film is erring too much on one side of the story, it shifts to the other perspective.

Gyllenhaal’s Loki relays that sort of downtrodden look, one that suggests he may be fed up with his role in the dank Pennsylvania logging town. He relentlessly blinks as if forcing himself to stay awake. We learn from the source that Loki has solved every case he’s ever been assigned, and you get the sense that is probably because he routinely swap sleep for work. Keller, likewise, bears a dishevelled appearance most of the time, his gruff beard and hardened exterior perfectly matching the woody setting. Even Keller’s chequered shirt is dark grey and army green.

When the pair first interact following the girls’ disappearance, Jackman is brilliantly emotional; enraged to no end, with bloodshot eyes and a reckless aura that serves as a basis for what is to come. On the other hand Gyllenhaal evokes detachment, as if Loki has already been down this horrid route before. To him, it seems, what happens next is a formality. It is a fascinating — if not entirely surprising — clash that continues to evolve without genericism.

Roger Deakins’ use of a woozy grey colour palette encourages the dour and desolate mood. Cinematographer Deakins is always an ever-present during awards season (he was nominated for his work here, and has been on the final ballot for his numerous efforts alongside the Coen brothers) but, in one of the circuit’s most egregious ongoing shams, the camera master has never won an Oscar. He sets the scene ominously in Prisoners: when it rains, it really does pour.

For around an hour Deakins meticulously cuts away from any violence, allowing our imagination to run wild. The first instance of visceral brutality comes via the fists of dad Keller, flipping the morality of good and bad. Terrence Howard plays the father of the other lost girl, his ethics wavering but without as much force. Keller arrives at barbarity through his own prejudice — he believes he has the culprit, but the law disagrees. To Keller, his psyche crumbling under the weight of anguish and guilt, the law has become sterile and justice is best served cold.

The film challenges us to consider his predicament, and whether or not his actions are justified. That Hollywood babyface Hugh Jackman is the one inverting right and wrong only serves to complicate matters further. Even the local priest is a drunk, and worse. The reaction of Keller’s wife, mother to one of the missing girls, is a little harder to swallow. Played well by Maria Bello, she blames her husband for what has happened. Though this might be a truthful and raw circumstantial response, there is a disconnect between the overstretched attempt at melodramatic realism and the more grounded troubled realism surrounding Keller.

Villeneuve’s film is also about systematic failure. It calls into question how two girls, both of whom should be safe in their own neighbourhood, can go missing without a trace. The fact that Loki always seems to be fatigued suggests that he is overworked. You applaud his tenacity and sympathise with his increasing hopelessness — especially as he juggles the intense job with spit-fire tirades from the victims’ families — but you also lament the inadequate law set up. Keller is unable to actively assist the ongoing investigation due to legalities, the structure keeping him and his wife at arm’s length.

The movie reflects Zodiac’s overbearing misery (and also its literal puzzlement), and Gyllenhaal’s appearance also recounts his Nightcrawler aesthetic — post-gaunt, perhaps. He has to be restrained as the detective, but also as the co-star. Jackman, quite obviously, is the one doing most of the emoting. He gives a stunted powerhouse performance, a broken one, a trembling one. “You look very tired.” And he is. Paul Dano plays one of the primary suspects and although the nature of his character generally renders him silent, his performance manages to be one of internal terror and external creep.

“No-one took them. Nothing happened. They’re just gone,” says one women dejectedly. And that’s the mantra by which the film lives. It keeps us guessing to the point where we might never find out what happened. This slow burning premise echoes of the first season of The Killing; very thorough, manoeuvring this way and that, affording its audience time to think. The pace is slow and film is long at two and a half hours, but the pace would be slow for the families involved. A sudden burst of energy towards the conclusion ushers in an incredibly well-executed car sequence.

Prisoners reconstructs the pillars of humanness and purity. What would we do in similar circumstances? Having initially caught his suspect with fuzzily correct intentions, doubt soon creeps into Keller’s mind. Yet he never releases his captive. As time wears on, it becomes apparent that Keller is only disseminating pain in order to serve his own emptiness — it’s a temporary stop-gap that might, somehow, eventually lead to a permanent solution.

Prisoners - Gyllenhaal & Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

★★

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Release Date: March 22nd, 2013 (US); April 17th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott

As far as attacks on the White House go, Olympus Has Fallen trudges its way across the vast lawn with a disappointingly uninspired plod. Bluntly, it’s a film that just doesn’t get much right. Antoine Fuqua’s take on the internal threat to homeland and presidential security saga struggles in areas where it should thrive — notably notions of simplicity — before subsequently becoming entangled in a tonal muddle as it oddly tries to venture into the faux-documentary realm without any conviction. The latter, coupled alongside some shoddy looking CGI attempts, creates a distinctly undesirable televisual shimmer; for $70 million it all feels slightly cheap. Without the macho zest of Gerard Butler, this may very well have been a complete disaster.

The walking embodiment of a tragic evening in the life of both men, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has been removed from Presidential protection duties as the mere sight of him rekindles harrowing memories in the fraught mind of President Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Now chained to a desk job in an office only a few blocks from the White House, the hardy soul is again summoned to defend nation and state as a result of terrorist infiltration. With the Leader of the Free World at the mercy of North Korean guerrilla forces and the very real prospect of US nuclear destruction on the table, Mike sees a chance not to simply become a hero — that’s not enough — but at redemption.

Sounds reasonably straightforward, right? The age-old tale of man (or woman), pride and mind wounded, given the opportunity to reclaim fortitude and settle a previous score. Mike Banning’s journey epitomises this narrative. Heck, he even has the inherently restorative wife in his corner (she’s a nurse); their relationship strained by past decisions and Mike’s resultant self-serving of personal blame when there really isn’t any to be gobbled. Adhering to a well-versed formula is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the adherence is sincere and peppered with an occasional murmuring of intuition. Only, you’re more likely to find a needle in haystack than intuition around these parts.

On one hand, the simplicity is executed sloppily, furnishing a sense of genericism over what could’ve been enjoyable modesty. Visual discrepancies bear the brunt of detriment here — the opening act is hampered by a flow of images that closer resemble the presentation of a video game than a Hollywood film. Later, drones waver around the sky without appearing fully embedded in the landscape, hinting at some sort of blending issue. The graphical inadequacies do sort themselves out when the action slows down and digital enhancement is dumped for more conventional techniques. Yet on the other hand, director Antoine Fuqua unveils vague ramblings of a documentary-style aesthetic. We often watch as labels appear inconspicuously beside characters on screen, each textual nugget informing us of the individual’s name and occupation. It chimes as an attempt to induce a sense of realism or to imply a degree of truth (because not much else is believable), but instead feels lazy. Boasting a portfolio of films including the likes of Training Day, Fuqua is evidently better than this.

Narratively, we don’t get off on the best foot. Driving in blizzard conditions as horrendous as those depicted in the opening act hints at senselessness, particularly given the President of the United States is a passenger. Instantly there arises a lingering anxiety that this will only be the first in a long line of foolish happenings and, true to form, shortly thereafter a conveyor belt of outrageous decision-making is set in motion (at one point the order is given to shoot down aircraft over a busy Washington DC). Nonsense often generates humour, but in a film that preposterously takes itself far too seriously nonsense wholly reduces any semblance of sympathy for the characters on-screen, which is a pretty significant problem given the horrendous predicament that many find themselves in.

A severe tonal struggle exists between the intended air of sobriety and seriousness, and a plot that reeks retro strands: North Korean bad guys, invading and controlling, targeting the President and threatening nuclear catastrophe. It’s a throwback and, to a degree, a fairly camp one. Unsurprisingly, a clear victor fails to emerge between the pair of duelling tones, as the serious ploy comes across as slightly over-egged and the nostalgic effect only exists in principle. As a result the film is devoid of both tension and giggles, unless you get a kick out of lines such as, “They’ve taken the White House!” (a greater helping of which certainly would not have negatively impacted proceedings.)

Performances are almost universally uninspired, with the exception of Gerard Butler’s effort. As Mike Banning, Butler manages to inject a small helping of gusto whenever he is present on-screen and also during breaks from under-his-breath muttering. The role is ultimately one-dimensional but that’s no more than required, fuelling the simplicity fire. It’s also a dimension more than most of the other deliveries. As President Asher, Aaron Eckhart has very little to do other than conjure the occasional grimace which, incidentally, looks the same irrespective of whether or not he’s missing out on ice-cream or being held hostage by terrorists. Perhaps the most problematic character is Dylan McDermott’s Secret Service agent Dave Forbes whose moral dynamic flip-flops around more than a fish out of water. Female persons are inexcusably shunted to background; the likes of Radha Mitchell, Ashley Judd and Melissa Leo are less than secondary factors. Morgan Freeman ought to get back to be being God.

Olympus Has Fallen unfortunately stumbles and falls from the get-go, struggling to regain any semblance of steady-footedness thenceforth. A decent Gerard Butler performance cannot prevent the inevitable stern wave of unnecessarily harsh undertones from washing away any potential puddles of fun. It’s not great.