Something strange happened at the local screening of the much-praised thriller “Prisoners.”
Denis Villeneuve’s film has been widely praised for its power and its brilliant ability to transcend a television genre plot i.e., two distraught fathers take the law into their own hands to find their kidnapped young daughters when the police investigation seems to stall.
The film has received considerable praise at the Toronto International Film Festival and elsewhere. Until Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” wound up winning the festival’s Audience Favorite prize at the end (an award previously given to such Oscar Best Picture winners as “Slumdog Millionaire”), there was some speculation that “Prisoners” might have been in the running.
So what was strange is that people laughed at completely inappropriate times in the film and not once or twice either but four or five times.
I understood, I think, what was going on.
It’s not that they misapprehended what was happening on the screen but that it was so much more intense than what they were used to that they couldn’t process it correctly. There was too much extreme emotion. It was presented to them too suddenly and without the thuggish “wit” that our movies have long since allowed those on the “right” moral side.
That was especially true coming from Hugh Jackman as the take-charge father. He’s an all-around actor who has no trouble being light in movies or appearing as comic book werewolves or the heroes of musical costume dramas.
To be the most activist father searching for a couple of adorable kidnapped daughters and to do it entirely without wisecracks or predigested, canned TV emotions was hugely unnerving to those few people who were laughing at the exact wrong times.
They were watching extreme emotional intensity within the most naturalistic context – in a suburban landscape (it was filmed outside Atlanta) that couldn’t possibly look more real and is performed by superb actors who are reacting to horror by themselves becoming monsters but doing it amid perfectly modulated realism.
For some in the audience, the incongruity was too much.
The film, after all, is after something morally larger than the usual mechanical TV suspense thriller. The “Prisoners” of this film’s title are, in fact, everyone dealing directly with its basic situation. What we’re watching is the devolution of good people.
And who counts most in the film are the two married couples whose daughters are missing – Jackman and Maria Bello and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. The dogged local cop on the case is Jake Gyllenhaal.
The director of this is the Quebecois Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and his grasp of behavioral subtlety and detail is phenomenal – the little blinking tic of Gyllenhaal’s eyes that he let the actor get away with for realism’s sake, or the complex reactions that come at some supercharged moments.
It’s so persuasive that when the “reality” of the movie takes over – families and professionals get frantic dealing with duress and impending horror as the clock ticks – the unhinged emotions can seem comic to some. Bits of dialogue that are truly vicious can seem to them like the same kind of malevolent wisecracking as a squinting Clint Eastwood hissing “make my day.”
Our movies and TV, it seems, have taught some of us far too well.
Which is why brilliant thrillers like “Prisoners” are needed to un-teach us.
Essentially it turns on two tracks: It’s a police procedural as we follow the dogged cop through a completely convincing suburban neighborhood (as so many great movies do, this movie has an infallible sense of place); and a revenge fantasy as one of the two frantic fathers convinces the other to fall into a moral sinkhole with him and torture the mentally challenged prime suspect for information.
Make no mistake: The torture scenes in “Prisoners” are brutal. It isn’t just that they carry so much more moral freight than such things on, say, “Criminal Minds”; it’s that they’re so much more detailed and bloody and inventive.
The suspect is played by Paul Dano in a deeply unnerving performance. Just as unsettling is Melissa Leo, playing his aunt at an emotional and volume level that never rises above what you’d use to inquire of a houseguest whether he’d like a cup of coffee.
Everyone here is imprisoned by the horror of the ongoing crime and the possibility of the worst possible outcome. That’s the point of the script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”).
It’s a tense, stark, superbly crafted thriller and it’s ending is wickedly diabolical.
It resolves everything in a dark way that provides the most legitimate sinister laugh in the entire film.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 153 minutes
Rating: R for violence, language and bloody torture.
The Lowdown: Acclaimed thriller in which two fathers of kidnapped young girls go to extreme measures to get them back while the police investigate.