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.
Release Date: October 2nd, 2014 (UK); October 3rd, 2014 (US)
Genre: Drama; Mystery; Thriller
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Somebody encourage Rosamund Pike to clear her schedule for early next year. By many accounts — relative superficiality considered — the awards rounds that take place in January and February can manifest as quite the gruelling undertaking, particularly for those nominated without much hope. I bet the endeavour is worth it though, all the glamming up and invariably rigorous speech preparation, when your name bellows around LA’s Dolby Theatre and that egregious Academy countdown begins.
Should she get there (and she should) Miss Pike will be an Oscar newbie come February 22nd. It’s early, granted, but the performance(s) she delivers in Gone Girl will take some beating. Gillian Flynn’s spotless adaptation of her own novel to screen might also take some beating. Heck, David Fincher may well find himself in another directorial gong joust. Gone Girl is not fun and games, just games. It’s downbeat and harsh and at times painfully glum. It’s intelligent and gripping and oddly satirical. It’s very, very good.
On his fifth wedding anniversary Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find a toppled table and smashed glass all over the floor, but not his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Upon subsequently reporting her missing, the bar owner plummets into a media frenzy fuelled by accusation, exoneration and consequence. Exactly what has happened to Amazing Amy?
Fincher refers to his back catalogue for inspiration, a method ultimately met with total vindication. Gone Girl refuses to settle on one genre platform and instead deftly mingles around a number of areas from which the director has previously thrived. The taut tension felt in Panic Room returns with a vengeance in tandem alongside Zodiac’s murky mystery. Much of what unfolds during the two and a half hour runtime does so in a mellow-ish manner; solemn, yet clawing away underneath the surface. We don’t really know what to believe or who to trust and Fincher works hard to emphasise that point. Historical diary entries penned by Amy are interspersed between the present, where husband Nick is battling the elements. Revelations come unstuck and we become part of the evolving saga, our minds constantly mobilising.
The director does this brilliantly, teasing us with character faults that we simply cannot ignore and that resultantly challenge our moral head space when nastiness arises. A coating of mystique, irrespective of its level, remains throughout all three acts — each of which vary in agency. What begins as a simmering thriller re-emerges as a social commentary on cultural norms, before climaxing in a fit of peculiarity and deceit. (Fincher himself has used the term “absurdist” to describe part of the story, and he is obviously spot on).
A lack of narrative jarring ought to be admired too, as each element works cohesively with the one before ensuring that there is no lull in proceedings. Don’t bring a watch, you won’t need to check the time. Perhaps the most interesting train of thought is the film’s exploration of a self-created image; this idea that we generate an idyllic version of ourselves to parade in front of others, when we’re in public. What happens, then, after five years of marriage? Script writer Gillian Flynn has an answer, and you get the sense that her adaptation to the big screen has come at an optimal time — the novel was only released in 2012, therefore the themes remain wholly tangible.
Another of those themes is one that seems to go hand in hand with personal façade: an exploration into the role of media. Specifically, media grossness. We watch the aftermath of Nick’s press conference where he outlines the brief details behind his wife’s disappearance, and the fallout is quite cruel. People become puppets via talk show hosts and public photographs and, to an extent, the film becomes less about finding Amy than it does Nick attempting to revitalise his own tarnished image. Ben Affleck paints Nick as a flounderer to a degree, but still as someone you’d fancy getting along with. The engulfing news storm is a usurping force of nature that strives to internalise the character’s prerogative, so much so that we doubt him relentlessly.
Navigating Rosamund Pike’s role as the eponymous gone girl is akin to traversing a recently laid mine field, and that is to the credit of Fincher and company. The actress is truly marvellous, a sentiment echoed in passing by Tyler Perry’s charismatic fixer Tanner Bolt: “Aww, she is good.” She is. Perry himself is one part of a diverse cast sustained by precision and efficiency, but it is the interaction between Affleck and Pike that engages most. Conversations between the pair relived through Amy’s diary entries are somewhat disoriented by a peculiar, haunting ambience. It is a haze struck up masterfully by the combined efforts of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and music men Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, all three well versed in Fincher lore. Cronenweth’s visual sheen resembles the pristine surface and texture of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, backed up by a disquieting score, relays a melancholic haze.
It’s worth pointing out the satirical infusion brought forth by the film’s final act, at a time when proceedings really begin to marshal around the absurd. Though we spend moments throughout the film tickled by characters’ comical reactions (an early police interrogation, for example) as proceedings start to unravel what might have seemed amusing an hour ago morphs into a manifestation of discomfort. Events on screen are obtusely elevated, of course, but at a base level there lurks a degree of potential reality.
Brought to fruition by a supremely talented cast also including the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Carrie Coon, and guided magnificently by a director whose work has finally struck an impenetrable balance, is a film not afraid to break the mould; one that defiantly stands beside the courage of its own convictions.
Evidence hardly ever amounts to clarity during Gone Girl, but Gone Girl most certainly is evidence that David Fincher is on the top of his game.
Guess what the next genre is? It is a mystery, isn’t it? No, it really is a mystery. Okay, enough of the shockingly bad jokes.
Not one of the more prominent genres, mystery tends to flirt around the edges of just about every other genre, without actually sticking out. However, there are a number of films which are defined by their mystery element. Personally, I am drawn towards films containing a mysterious element over most other types of films — mainly in the hope that such a film will keep me guessing all the way until the end.
Mystery films tend to be hit or miss — either the outcome of whatever mystery is going on is surprising or shocking or entertaining, or it is not. It will be to nobody’s surprise, then, that the five films on my list I consider to be five hits.
I have decided to change the format slightly from my previous Genre Toppers posts. The reasoning behind this is that I think reading large paragraphs over and over again can sometimes get a bit tedious, so hopefully this change will keep things more interesting. This newer format seems to work well with the mystery genre in particular, but who knows — I may use it again in the future.
From the acclaimed director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the story of one of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killers, known only as the Zodiac. Boasting a strong cast containing Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, the film depicts the events surrounding the police investigation into the murders carried out during the 1960s and 1970s, and why the murders were occurring.
Where The Mystery Lies
Who is the serial killer known as the Zodiac, and what do the cryptic clues being sent to the police mean?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Fincher’s target audience: Interestingly, Zodiac is David Fincher’s second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% of critics enjoying it (second only to The Social Network at 96%), whereas it is Fincher’s lowest revenue-taking film, grabbing only (yeah, only) around $85 million worldwide. Why? Primarily because Fincher aimed the film towards a typically older audience, rather than playing up its slasher element and in turn appeasing only “16-year-old boys,” as Fincher put it.
Style and the 70s: Obviously I was not around in the late 1960s/early 1970s in order fully understand what those years were like, but Fincher certainly goes a long way to making sure Zodiac captures the tone and style of them. Everything from smoky newsrooms to wacky attires are in full display here, and although the film lasts over two and half hours, it is worth watching at that length just to enjoy the cinematography.
Delightful dialogue: The performances from the three leads in Zodiac are very convincing, and this is helped in no small part by the deliberate and encapsulating script the actors exchange between each other. Fincher has a knack for using excellent, well-crafted scripts (take Se7en and The Social Network as two prime examples) and Zodiac is no different. Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and Ruffalo do the film and its words justice — in fact, the positive audience reaction combined with the lack of a well-rounded ending proves just how well the actors and writers have done to make the film so enjoyable.
A slick, stylish and slow burning mystery drama, Zodiac keeps audiences interested through its exceptionally well-strung dialogue and interesting performances.
Released in 2009 and directed, written and produced by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam takes place in an alternative history and is set almost entirely in one room where a group of eight very different people must use their initiative to gain the employment they each desperately desire.
Where The Mystery Lies
The eight candidates are given one piece of paper and are told that the exam only consists of one question… but what is that question, and what is the correct answer?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Unknown cast: A problem a film can sometimes face when it boasts a worldwide star is that the audience do not believe that such a level of star can actually be the character they are portraying (particularly if the character is a normal, everyday person). Exam benefits from a relatively unknown cast — apart from Colin Salmon, although he does not appear very often throughout the film, making his character seem even more important and separate from the candidates. The candidates themselves each bring their own nuances to the table, coming across as genuine employment seekers and making the film much more believable and engrossing.
Simplicity is key: As you can probably gather from the synopsis above, the plot of Exam is very simple: eight candidates, one job, one question. That is it. Not only does this make the film easy to follow, it places more emphasis on the situation the characters find themselves in and adds focus to the characters themselves (in essence, this film is a character profile). The mystery is also heightened because it is not confusing — rather, it is intriguing.
Perfect pacing: Hazeldine ensures the film does not dwell on particular plot points, moving things along before they become stagnant, and coming back to events if need be. Again, this keeps the flow of the film just about right and ensures the audience’s attention is grasped and maintained. Also, the progression of the plot and the characters are both very well handled, generating more and more tension until the atmosphere becomes just about unbearable.
Exam is the perfect example of how to make a small, low budget film with a simple plot and still be able to keep it intriguing, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Guy Ritchie helms this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as former adversary Irene Adler. The story follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to uncover the perpetrator of a series of violent murders and prevent this perpetrator from taking over the British Empire.
Where The Mystery Lies
Holmes and Watson must decipher how their familiar foe plans to control the British Empire — but how has the murderer returned from his apparent execution?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
At home with Holmes: Robert Downey Jr plays an enormous part in how enjoyable this film is — his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is one of wit, intelligence, controlled chaos and downright hilarity. We are all used to seeing Downey Jr in charismatic roles (as Iron Man, for example) and here he seems completely in his comfort zone, which shows by way of his mesmerising depiction of Holmes — rivalled only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the hit television series, Sherlock. But not all the praise must be solely heaped on Downey Jr, as Jude Law is very effective in working as a buffer for Holmes to play off of. Mark Strong is as menacing as always playing the villain of the piece and Rachel McAdams is delightful as Irene Adler.
Visually unique: The cinematographers and set designers deserve a vast amount of compliments for their old-fashioned-yet-energetic set pieces. It is a tremendous achievement in making London appear as it did back in the 19th century, but at the same time upholding a sense of freshness. Craftsmanship at its finest, if you ask me. Also, the slow motion fight sequences look effortlessly assembled and add an extra dimension to the film.
Action-packed: Guy Ritchie certainly does not hold back in terms of fight scenes (there are plenty) and explosions (they are in there too). At its simplest, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining action film with plenty of well-choreographed physical encounters and a fast-moving plot which keeps the action going and prevents the film from losing its momentum. The action takes place everywhere too — from underground to occult chambers to the top of massive cranes.
Quick-witted, funny, sometimes silly, but always entertaining — Sherlock Holmes is just about everything you expect from a Robert Downey Jr-led film.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island sees Martin Scorsese team up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since The Departed in 2006, and the fourth time overall (soon to be a fifth, with The Wolf Of Wall Street hitting cinemas in late 2013). DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. Marshals — Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule respectively — who attempt to uncover the mysterious happenings on Shutter Island.
Where The Mystery Lies
Daniels and Aule must find out the whereabouts of a missing patient, but what is the real reason they have been summoned to the island? (That is all you are getting, sorry!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Creating a separation: The chemistry between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is very underrated here, in my opinion. It is obvious that the two are outstanding actors, which is once again apparent in this film, but they also work exceedingly well together, in turn creating a sense of disconnect between themselves and the rest of the residents of Shutter Island. This is essential to the story, and thus the performances from both DiCaprio and Ruffalo (and also Ben Kingsley to be fair, who plays Dr. John Cawley) are a key part to the success of Shutter Island.
Shudder Island: There is an eerie and unnerving atmosphere generated throughout this film, and the creep factor increases as the film delves further and further into the mysterious happenings on the island. The film switches for brief moments to an almost comedic tone, but that tone is swept away by dread almost as soon as it begins. The unnerving atmosphere is aided, of course, by the sense that the two U.S. Marshals, although called to island by those on it, are alone and not wanted.
Musical mayhem: Another major player in the eerie atmosphere, the musical involvement in Shutter Island is as close to perfect as possible. From the foghorn sounding booming interludes throughout, to the seemingly out-of-place uplifting belts of opera (which completely add to the intentional confusion and lack of transparency during the film), the score is outrageous-yet-brilliant.
I am a big fan of when DiCaprio and Scorsese work together because they always deliver, and Shutter Island is no different — in fact, it is my personal favourite output produced by the combination of the two.
The Prestige (2006)
From the man who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, comes The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson. Jackman and Bale play two previously partnering magicians who have turned fierce rivals after an accident split the pair up. It is the ultimate battle of wit and nerve as each magician aims to better the other by creating and performing the greatest illusion of all time.
Where The Mystery Lies
It is a film about magic, right? Well, not entirely. Although a mystery element does exists and runs throughout — just how did he do it? (Again, that is all you are getting — I really cannot give too much away here!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Coming full circle: It would be a crime for me to sit here and write about what happens during the climax, because it is masterfully accomplished on-screen in my eyes. Everything from the beginning through to the main act (pun sort of intended), to the dialogue during the film build up to a quite extraordinary revelation, and one which I got nowhere near figuring out. I do not want to overhype the ending so much so that it will be an inevitable let down no matter what, but trust me, it is very good and it perfectly polishes off the non-linear plot the film possesses.
Caring about characters: Nolan allows each character to breathe (much like he does in the majority of his other films) and this allows each actor — even those whose characters only play a minor role — to fully develop their role and ensure the audience can become emotionally invested in them. The dynamic between the two duelling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is electric at times, and the lengths they go in order to get one up on each other become believable due to the hatred Jackman and Bale successfully generate. Less prominent characters such as Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, and Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife, add further layers to the main duo, whilst Scarlett Johnasson’s Olivia Wenscombe acts as a spanner in the works.
More than just magic: As I mentioned above, although The Prestige contains a lot of magic, that is not the primary focus of the film. For me, the primary focus is the tumultuous relationship between two men and all that their relationship embodies, in terms of trust (or lack thereof), deceit and jealousy. Using magic as a background their relationship and these characteristics bolsters the overall plot, but it is the three aforementioned factors which give The Prestige substance.
When talking about mystery the first destination is always magic, and The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat — just when you think he is being slightly over-ambitious, he absolutely nails it.
So there you have it, five excellent mystery films. Here are some honourable mentions:
Final Destination (2000) — Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat (pun intended). But in all seriousness, although Final Destination is technically a gross-out horror, it does have that mystery element to it ensuring that it does not just become a gore-fest. Which is basically does anyway. I tried.
Phone Booth (2002) — Similar to Exam in the sense that it is primarily set in one location, Phone Booth is intense and pacey, with a decent lead performance from Colin Farrell and an extra creepy voice-only performance from Kiefer Sutherland.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) — At approaching three hours long, The Da Vinci Code had a fair amount of people almost sleeping, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tom Hanks is a guy I could watch acting all day long.
A Perfect Getaway (2009) — This is about an hour of really disconcerting build-up surrounding three couples, one of which has a murderous streak. Then it goes a bit too action-like and loses some momentum. Regardless, a solid whodunit outing.
Devil (2010) — The mystery genre does tend to attract those single-location films, and we have another here, in Devil. Five people, one elevator and one devil… but who? A rare M. Night Shyamalan appearance in my blog.