Friday, March 21, 2014

Prison Watch

In the run-up to the announcement of the most recent Oscar nominations, I heard a few critics talking about the movie Prisoners. It deserved to be in the Best Picture race, they said... though it probably had no chance of making it. Indeed, they were right about the second part. As to the first?

Why check out a "not even a nominee" when there are still three actual nominees I haven't seen? Because this one sounded a whole lot more interesting. A suburban family is fractured when the young daughter vanishes, apparently abducted, along with a neighbor girl. When the police quickly nab a suspect only to just as quickly clear him, the father of one of the girls is pushed over the edge. Certain of this suspect's guilt, he begins to take matters into his own hands, crossing boundaries of legality and morality to get his little girl back.

The film has a hell of a cast. The leads are Hugh Jackman as the father, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective. But that's only scratching the surface of a group loaded with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, and actors who appeared in past Best Picture contenders. There's Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano, and several more good, working character actors you'll probably "know from somewhere."

And the performances really are wonderful. In any other year where the field wasn't so crowded, Hugh Jackman could have been in the running for Best Actor. Paul Dano is put through the wringer. Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Maria Bello are all wonderful as grieving parents who deal with their losses in very different ways from the hero.

But the plot isn't entirely there. It is largely satisfying as a mystery, because the plot is rather tangled up and not easily unraveled. But as a study of character -- which seems to be the movie's true aspiration -- it's a bit lacking. Hugh Jackman's character unravels, to be sure, but it's an awfully quick journey that doesn't feel earned. It also feels "complete" far sooner than the end of the film. His behavior is perhaps -- perhaps -- understandable, given the situation, but the film moves too fast for it to be sympathetic. And because of this unnecessary haste early on, the middle of the film drags. The characters have gotten where they're meant to go emotionally, but the plot isn't ready to be unraveled.

So ultimately, I give Prisoners a B-. It's not bad, but I wasn't really left feeling that a worthy Best Picture contender had been overlooked.

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