Don’t Believe the Hype — ‘Prisoners’ Is a Cheap Thriller

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners that sums up pretty much everything that’s wrong with the picture. Here’s how it goes: Two little girls have been abducted. While the parents (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) of one of them are out, the prime suspect for the crime breaks into their home. Their teenage daughter is at her most vulnerable: naked and taking a bath, talking on her cell phone. Villeneuve cuts away. We then see Howard and Davis return home. They call out for their daughter; she does not answer. They call out more, open doors, flip on lights. A good half-minute of screen time is spent on this exercise before they break down the bathroom door — and discover her walking out, chastising them for not telling her they were leaving. No explanation is provided for her lengthy silence and lack of response, because there isn’t a logical one. She was inexplicably quiet so that Villeneuve could build in a cheap, easy moment of faux-tension that wouldn’t have made the cut in a second-tier horror movie.

But Prisoners is full of stuff like that. After a promising and evocative opening, full of snowy woodlands and torrential downpours and pangs of impending doom, it is slowly revealed as an increasingly sloppy thriller, filled with obvious clues, laughable red herrings, and halfhearted “shock” reveals, played at a snail’s pace that lets far too much air into the narrative. It’s the kind of mystery that the Law & Order crew could bang out in an hour (including commercials), but because Villeneuve has filled the ensemble with Serious Actors, drafted the great Roger Deakins to photograph the film in heavy-hearted darkness, and directed with an air of stifling dread, it’s somehow being treated as first-class filmmaking. It’s not.

The bait-and-switch is easy to understand, though, and there are isolated elements, here and there, that work. Deakins shoots the early scenes, while we’re waiting for the shoe to drop, in a flat, everyday style that’s tremendously unsettling. Paul Dano finds the right key for his bespectacled creep, and never lets you get a read on him. The sequences following the abduction convey a palpable sense of hopelessness. Thought-provoking questions are posed about the troublesome nature of certainty. And it’s got Viola Davis, which almost any movie gets a pass for.

But even she can’t make sense of her half-written character. At one key moment, she discovers that her husband and the other girl’s father (Hugh Jackman) have been conducting their own, morally questionable investigation. She shows up at Jackman’s door, pounding, furious. “What the hell were you thinking?” she demands. He doesn’t answer. And then, after a micro-pause, her voice softens, and she says she wants to come along. There’s no possible motivation for the immediate 180-degree turn; it’s perhaps the most puzzling moment in a film full of them. (Here’s another puzzler: why she and Howard get so much less screen time than Jackman and Maria Bello. Oh, wait, we know the answer to that.)

The rest of the cast fares worse. Howard’s noble teary-eyed schtick has grown tiresome. Jackman seems to have confused “loud acting” with “serious acting.” Jake Gyllenhaal has his moments, but his performance is sidetracked by several odd character choices, like the slow, pronounced, deliberate way he blinks his eyes (it’s as weird and distracting as it sounds) and his ill-fitting wardrobe; stuff like this isn’t acting, it’s affectation.

And yet, somehow, it’s getting raves. David Denby calls it “a somberly impressive thriller” that “digs into the dark cellars of American paranoia and aggression” (but, y’know, Denby). Rex Reed instructs you to “Prepare to be electrified!”; he dubs it “the must-see sensation of the year” and warns, “you will be frozen to your seat with awe” (but, y’know, Reed). Most shockingly, Prisoners took second runner-up at the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s an expression, “festival goggles,” applied to films that lose their luster once out of the rarified film festival air. I’m not saying that’s what happened with Prisoners. But it’s the best explanation I can come up with.

Prisoners is out tomorrow in wide release.