Rating: W W
Good cinematography can do a lot for a movie. It can transform average, everyday locations into something otherworldly, affect a mood that wouldn’t otherwise be captured in performances or the storyline, and make Hollywood’s tiniest and skankiest residents look far more imposing and slightly less skanky.
But as important as good cinematography can be, great cinematography can do even more. How much more? Well, let me put it this way. Roger Deakins’ cinematography in “Prisoners” is so powerful, so evocative and wonderfully bleak, I didn’t realize I was watching bad movie for at least the first hour of its two-and-a-half hour running time. To reiterate, Deakins’ camera work is so good he actually tricked me into thinking I was watching a much better movie. But eventually the magic of Deakins’ camera wears off and you start to realize that the effective film you thought you were watching is basically a dumbed down version of “Zodiac” with a twist ending so stupid and convoluted it’s shocking that it doesn’t involve aliens in some way.
In “Prisoners,” Hugh Jackman plays a suburban dad whose daughter - along with her friend, the daughter of next door neighbor Terence Howard- is seemingly abducted by a deranged man who looks like a composite sketch of every doughy creep that was tackled by that walking bush thing on “To Catch a Predator” (Paul Dano). Even though evidence suggests that Dano was not responsible for the children’s disappearance, Jackman still kidnaps Dano and holds him prisoner in an abandoned house, where he tortures him to reveal more about the incident. Meanwhile, a twitchy and haunted Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective heading up the investigation who discovers there’s more to this story than just a simple kidnapping. Which is a shame, because this movie would have worked better if it was just about a simple kidnapping.
“Prisoners” could have been a much stronger movie if it merely focused on the sometimes dehumanizing effects of loss or even the horrifying lengths that parents will go through for their children. But, instead, “Prisoners” is more interested in setting up an overly-complicated plot twist that is so silly and cartoonish it wouldn’t be out of place in a “Dark Knight” sequel. Especially if the film’s villain happens to be the Riddler. Additionally, even though Jackman is the film’s unofficial villain, “Prisoners” is constantly trying to manipulate us into taking his side. Have a problem with Jackman beating Dano with a hammer or scalding him with hot water? Don’t worry about it. Dano strangled a dog for no particular reason. He was asking for it. Don’t like the fact that Jackman took the law into his own hands? Well, that’s OK because all of that torture paid off and Jackman managed to solve the case long before Gyllenhaal did. Nuance and subtlety are for precious, big babies!
On the plus side, the performances in “Prisoners” are strong, particularly Gyllenhaal, who takes his intense, slightly unhinged character in weird yet understated directions (like the early interrogation scene where it seems as if he’s just about to make out with Dano’s deranged man-child). But, much like Deacons’ cinematography, the performances are just window dressing and can’t conceal the film’s greater flaws.
-To read more of Pete’s cinematic musings, please visit whatpeteswatching.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.