Prisoners is the sort of movie I’d expect to find out it was based on a novel by some fairly prominent author, one which probably tells a well-worn story but has enough style and ideas in it to mark its independence from others in the genre. As a movie it does the first of these right, telling the story of two kidnapped girls and the struggle of a police officer and one of the girl’s fathers to locate them in the face of worsening odds (Sound familiar, Gone Baby Gone?). But I said that I expected it to be based on a novel, and when I read the credits I found that it was in fact an original script by first timer Aaron Guzikowski, I realized that what I’d taken for a slightly unconventional mystery was in fact a wondrously obtuse script that can’t distinguish the events of the plot with the actions of the characters.
These characters are so evasive that it’s like each of them has had one important scene of theirs cut, and the audience gets nearly zero background on them other then their job and place in the story. This technique can be successful when the characters interact with a number of people and scenarios, but Prisoners largely limits these and makes each of them feel one-dimensional. Take the detective assigned to the case, Loki (Bizarre mythological name meaning precisely zilch in this scenario) is a hard cop who we are told has “Never left a case unsolved,” but he has no personal life, no relationships, and the only clue to his upbringing is a neck tattoo and a series of zodiac signs on his knuckles.
As played by Jake Gyllenhal he is alternately fierce and soft-spoken, but any sense of his growing obsession and desperation is limited because we really lack evidence of what his normal state of mind is. Even a single scene of Loki trying to sleep, or going home and trying to medicate with liqueur would bring understanding to his tension, but all we get is a notable eye tick that none of his supervisors seem to notice, which makes all his behavior and emotions appear out of the blue instead of making sense for his character.
Hugh Jackman’s character Keller Dover is even more frustrating, because while his relationship with his son and daughter mark him as a religious family man, he’s also a survivalist with a basement full of guns, generators, and canned food that don’t appear to bother his family in the slightest. Keller is the type of figure who should be interesting because of his contradictions in worldviews, but the story makes him fixated on the idea that a mentally handicapped man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is responsible for his and his neighbor Franklin’s daughter’s disappearance because they were last seen playing around his RV. This turns Keller into an unsympathetic character that hounds Alex even after he’s been exonerated thanks to both his mental state, as well as the circumstances for his suspicion.
The idea that the lengths Keller goes to in the name of saving his daughter should be a compelling one, but because the narrative suggest his evidence of Alex’s guilt is the product of his desperation, his morality and justifications seem increasingly unbelievable and grating. His motivations make sense, but his target just doesn’t, especially not when Loki is following up leads on another creepy person who appears at a neighborhood candlelight vigil like only creepy red herrings in these thrillers do. It’s the meta-problem of the viewer knowing more then the characters, and when the narrative is split like Prisoners is, it’s like reading a mystery that you’ve already solved, and are getting impatient with the characters for not figuring it out.
You might notice a little confusion in my summary of characters and events, like the other father Franklin (Terrance Howard) who’s daughter Joy is missing, but this actually best stimulates how the movie seems less interested in exploring the characters and more interested in directing them around in patterns dictated by their role in the story. As such, Franklin’s daughter Joy barely seems to register as a fellow captive when Keller yells at Loki to stop wasting time and find my daughter, and his wife Eliza (Zoe Borde) spends nearly the entire movie crying in bed while he pretends to go out and get drunk.
More then just the characters though is a question of what exactly is the narrative we are supposed to be following, and what it is trying to say. Prisoners meanders on both sides of the law, with Loki’s only being more compelling because of the elaborateness of the red herrings he happens upon in this seemingly idyllic community. If the movie has a strong point it is the strangeness of the events that are uncovered, and how they appear to be hinting at some very disturbing activities in the past.
However, the bizarre thing about Prisoners is how almost all of these events are merely referenced almost like throwaway explanations for people’s behavior. For instance, we eventually learn why a character has been sneaking into people’s houses, but the motive is so interesting that the fact that the movie doesn’t focus on it feels strange. Prisoners seems like it’s trying to be less about the investigation and more about themes of obsession and faith, but it doesn’t highlight these in a way that feel integral to the rest of the plot, except when they are invoked as explanations which are too brief to feel significant.
The movie attempts to present these events as pieces in a puzzle, linked only by a strange maze-like pattern, discovered in the first act by Loki, but it takes him so long to piece this together that you’re left wondering why the movie is wasting your time with more pointless false leads when it’s already telegraphed how important the pattern are to understanding the case. It’s this quality that makes Prisoners feel like it’s an amateur work, all the Chekov guns go off arbitrarily rather then logically so that instead of feeling like a cohesive mystery, it feels like a series of coincidences whose connection to each other is due more to the story then to logic.
If the focus is supposed to be on the significance of the maze, why does a whole sub-plot follow Keller who never learns of it, yet he’s given information about it that is only viewers will understand? If the focus is supposed to be about Keller using extreme measures to locate his daughter, why do the circumstance leave so much open? And if the focus is supposed to be on how all these characters are somehow “prisoners” to an idea of emotion, why doesn’t it have these characters reflect on these in some way that is not internal?
But the most unforgivable part of Prisoners is that when all the pieces are laid bare, you realize that neither Keller nor Loki actually figured out the mystery. Keller receives his break in the case thanks to luck, and Loki virtually stumbles onto his while doing separate police work. As viewers, characters figuring things out and making breakthroughs are the important to making them feel compelling, and seeing them basically handed the solution by the narrative is just unsatisfying.
Prisoners actually has a pretty twisted story at its core, but it’s a story whose clues are not so much eluded to, as merely suggested as a possible explanation for what has happened. We don’t learn exactly WHY one of the characters did what they did, only that they were a certain kind of character who might do something like that. This lack of understanding ultimately lends a hollow quality to everything, and robs events of the impression they would otherwise make on the viewer.
Prisoners also conclude with an ending that I can only describe as “brilliantly stupid,” or “stupidly brilliant” depending on whether you agree with the possible interpretation mechanism for the movie’s plot. There really isn’t anything ambiguous about what its final shot is suggesting, but it ends before the needle falls as though it’s aware of its own foregone conclusion and wants to leave us with something other then closure. Perhaps we as the audience are the final prisoners to the film’s eclectic motivations in this way, or maybe it’s the directors attempt to remind us that not all mysteries in real life end on a dime.