When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?
Year 3, Film #8
THE GOOD: I’ve watched many great mystery thrillers and I’ve found that the key to success is always with how the film deals with the dispensing of information. Most mysteries, and usually my favorite ones, require me to do a lot of the work. You know just enough about what’s going on to keep things interesting instead of being frustrated. If you get the clues as the main characters due, it builds up tension because you aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. Prisoners is slightly different, but equally as powerful. Watching Prisoners I often felt like I was a few steps ahead of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). A few of the suspects I saw coming as well as how they were involved (or not) in the abduction. It actually got to a point where I realized I started to guess what would happen and was a bit disappointed. However, what I now realize, is that Prisoners did indeed give away a lot of clues and information, but it provides a false sense of knowledge. This generosity with details masks the fact that there’s a whole lot you’re not paying attention to. The result is a 180˚ twist at the end that caught me completely off guard and left me very impressed.
While the writing and the overall structure of the story has a lot to do with this mystery in Prisoners, the other aspect that contributes a lot is the cinematography. Often times it will play a minor role in a lot of mysteries, always present, but more like a minor character. In Prisoners though, Roger Deakin’s (Skyfall, How to Train Your Dragon, The Shawshank Redemption, and many other great films) camera work, the cinematography acts like another character. The shots direct our attention and focus much more precisely than a normal film does which in turn leads to the mysterious moments and revealing of clues.
To give just one example of many, lets look at the beginning of the film. The Dover and Birch families are having Thanksgiving dinner and at this point, these two families are the only characters we’ve met. Cut outside to a wide shot of an tan RV driving down the street, past several houses; the only car on the road. This wide shot from the back of the RV already provides a foreboding feeling — you know whoever is driving this vehicle is going to do the bad thing in this film. Then cut to a shot from the inside looking out the window at the passing houses. It’s a POV shot that lingers at several houses as the RV stops and goes. Especially with this POV shot, which shows nothing of the person (not even the hands or the clothes on the arms), it’s making you crave to know who this is and what is going to happen. Other films have POV shots, and use them to the same effect, but the reason I chose this moment as the exemplar for why the cinematography in Prisoners is so good is that it’s indicative of the broader idea. You, the viewer, are the camera. You are in this world watching things unfold, seeing things for yourself. Whereas other films use the camera more as a window into another world where you view from afar (and in many cases this is the right way to go), with Prisoners, the more “human” approach is much more beneficial and is the best work I’ve seen done for a film like this in some time.
THE BAD: There really isn’t much that’s wrong with Prisoners. Even my minor complaint above about being able to predict a lot of the twists isn’t something wrong with the film, it’s a purposeful misdirection from something even better (a bigger, more unexpected twist). But another minor annoyance that doesn’t have a side benefit is the overall structure of the film. It clocks in at 154 minutes which I would say is actually quite average for a mystery (Zodiac which I saw in June clocked in at 157 minutes) but the timing felt off. For instance, at around 90 minutes is when it feels like there’s a resolution to the story. One of the suspects is captured and is proved to be related somehow to the abduction. And it could have been the end — it would have been a lackluster ending and a horrible resolution, but it felt like there was a complete story that was told. Turns out, there was a whole other hour left to go.
THE TAKEAWAY: Prisoners packs in the mystery in some new and interesting ways. Many of the twists are predictable, but they lure you into a false sense of security before the big shocking one that’s completely unexpected. The cinematography also does a stellar job at providing and leading you to certain clues while distracting you from others (purposefully and skillfully).
THE RATING: 4 out of 5