Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cops and Robbers

September brings a whole new season, and with it many changes. Around the country, leaves change color and fall from the trees, the sun sets earlier and earlier, and Hollywood starts churning out the movies they think will actually have a chance of making an impression on critics and moviegoers. Yes, hidden amid the glut of Summer blockbusters and early-year critical fodder have been several intriguing films, including The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Fruitvale Station and The Way, Way Back. But with the soon-to-be-released likes of 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street... I could go on, but you get the picture. The coming months are so jam-packed with Oscar bait that even movies that would have been sure things a year or so ago will almost certainly find themselves on the outside looking in. Autumn (and winter afterward) brings with it the Big Boys, and the first officially serious candidate to rear its head is Denis Villeneuve's ensemble title Prisoners.
Jackman trying out as the "older, weathered" Bruce Wayne, perhaps?
In his follow-up to the Academy Award-nominated Canadian Incendies, Villeneuve takes his all-star cast and pits them against an unenviable foe when the daughters of friends Keller Dover (a poorly-monikered Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are kidnapped in broad daylight near their suburban homes. The police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) apprehend prime suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano), only to discover no evidence linking the mentally-underdeveloped man-child with the crime. Days pass without any clues, and with the families driven mad by the tragedy, Keller decides that the only way he will see his daughter alive is if he takes matters into his own hands.
Oh, wait, he just has that face all the time.
It's the above-mentioned veteran actors - plus talented performers like Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo - who give Prisoners it's most compelling strength, with Jackman front and center as a distraught father who desperate choices in an attempt to rescue his daughter. Since Jackman so often appears in relatively simple action films like The Wolverine and Real Steel, it's always wonderful to be surprised by the acting muscles he doesn't often flex, even if they belong to such a dark and despondent plot. Jackman owns his material, and while I am ragging on him in the photo comments about his stone-carved angry face, he does so much with vocal inflection and his actions that it makes up for any other weaknesses in his performance. Gyllenhaal also stands out, though a lack of character development means that those easily-recognizable demons from his past (which manifest themselves in neck tattoos and conspicuous eye twitches) are never explained. The film splits its time between those two actors, and not once do they fail to keep you hooked.
A little help from the rest of the cast.
Now if only the rest of the cast had been treated as reverently as the two leads. After the first act, I assumed Dano would be my favorite actor in this. Besides the fact that he has some great films on his resume (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks and Looper just to start), Dano is a natural talent who is really going into new territory with this role. As the mentally-disabled prime suspect, he puts real fear in the audience in his early scenes. But sadly, despite still playing a major role in the remaining acts, he is relegated to the background. The rest of the supporting cast is also misused, most getting one or two front-and-center scenes before fading back into obscurity. It's certainly not due to talent issues; this is one of the best-collected casts in recent memory, with more than enough ability to keep things interesting. Given more to do, they might have helped improve the film's mood, as well as director Villeneuve's pacing. Instead, they are mostly wasted.
He still can't believe he graduated from the Police Academy.
And it's the hands of Villeneuve where Prisoners gets a little sketchy. He gets some great performances out of his actors, and knows how to perfectly frame a shot. The director's technical prowess is certainly not my concern here. However, he might have been given a bit too much control over the movie's final release this past weekend. For one, the film is two-and-a-half hours long. Typically, I don't care about length; unlike many ADHD-riddled moviegoers, I can actually sit through a movie that's longer than an hour and a half and not be fidgety by time the credits roll, so long as the movie is actually good. I'm willing to sit through such a long film when the time is actually used to tell the story, as opposed to relatively short films who use so much filler you have to wonder about why they got made in the first place. Sometimes I even think that standard two-hour movies SHOULD add another twenty minutes to flesh out certain characters or elaborate on particular plot points, which would have made all the difference in the world. But Villeneuve tries to mimic the pacing of award-winning thrillers like The Usual Suspects with mixed results. Scenes are deliberately paced, there are far too many side-plots, and the red herrings become far too distracting as the story leads to a formulaic, mediocre ending. By my reckoning, an entire subplot containing a copycat kidnapper could have been cut without any major issues, perhaps to the benefit of allowing the side characters to become more significant (okay, I'm done with that rant). I'm rarely a fan of studios clamping down on a director's "artistic vision", but this was a situation where Warner Brothers perhaps should have stepped in and requested some cuts to the final product.
Obligatory pointing-of-the-gun cliche.
Perhaps Villeneuve just got a little overly-excited about directing his first American feature. He's still a talented director, but his treatment of Prisoners wasn't his best effort at expressing that ability. He's got a great cast, a solid story and the perfect mood, but the material doesn't quite gel in the way it really ought to. It's still a decent flick, and one I'd recommend for a decent DVD perusal. But awards bait this is not, likely forgotten in a few months time. It's truly a shame, as with the talent involved, it could have easily turned into one of the year's best. In a nutshell, that  is the difference between potential and the real world.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

I haven't written my review on this yet, and while like you I thought there were some good things about this film, there are TWO major story/casting problems I had, that distracted me from the film.

For those who haven't seen it yet, SPOILERS!

• I kept thinking through the two hours that Melissa Leo's character MUST have some large impact here. She's too good (an Oscar winner) to be just the mother of the suspect role. That's the problem I have with too many suspense/thriller films these days, when they hire named actors, as a viewer I just know they're going to have a big part in the story. The days of Hitchcock having the guts to kill off a major star in the first third of the film, are long gone.

• When Dano (BTW, I also thought he was great in "There Will Be Blood") was arrested, wouldn't he have been fingerprinted? And if so, wouldn't the police have his prints on file when he went missing as a child? As a film that relied so much on police procedural, I felt this was a huge plot hole.