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In my last post, I discussed Rush and that my initial attraction to the film was its director. This was not the case with Prisoners, whose director, Denis Villeneuve, I had never heard of. Prisoners caught my attention with its arresting trailer and stellar cast, but mostly because of its genre. I love a good thriller, especially one that promises kidnapped children, ambiguous suspects, good people gone bad and torture. Moral dilemmas? Unravelling families? Detectives taking it personally? Bring those over here, I can make use of them.
I didn’t get what I wanted though, as Prisoners fails to reach the sickening lows of films it seeks to emulate, especially David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as a dogged detective echoes the latter especially. Prisoners is a gruelling watch but, being the sick puppy I am, I wanted to be devastated. Instead, Prisoners was compelling and gripping for the first two hours, then fell apart in the final half hour. The trailer emphasised the central conceit, that two little girls are kidnapped, the police arrest a suspect who is then released due to lack of evidence, and the fathers of the girls, Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, kidnap the suspect, Paul Dano, and torture him. Reviews confirmed that this is the premise and that the film raised some interesting moral questions.
This did prove to be the case, as Keller Dover’s (Jackman) treatment of Alex Jones (Dano) is a descent into morally dubious territory, which Villeneuve does not flinch from showing us – shots of Alex’s battered face are genuinely horrifying. On the one hand, Prisoners clearly criticises the use of torture as Keller learns nothing from Alex. But the film does not completely condemn Keller, because any parent in his situation would be frantic and Keller clings desperately to this one hope of finding his daughter, committed to the belief that he is factually right even though what he does is morally wrong.
This thematic strand is engaging and disturbing and one that I wanted the film to explore further, but after two hours of intensity and going beyond genre conventions, the final act slides into generic territory. The last half hour shoehorns in an unconvincing psychopath in Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), some confusing red herrings as it appears Keller may have been responsible for the kidnapping (which we know he cannot have been because we have been watching him otherwise occupied) and a new dramatic development as Keller himself is imprisoned. This last twist was particularly frustrating because it provided too easy a resolution. At one point, the mystery appeared to have been solved with a tragic conclusion, as evidence pointed to another suspect. This proved to be a red herring and he was simply a former victim of the real kidnappers. What I really wanted was no resolution, the red herring the closest thing the families get to an answer, an open ending of bleakness and misery that would leave me shaken to the core. The final scene provided a hint of ambiguity, but it was too little, too late.
Prisoners is not bad, indeed technically it is very good. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is sublime (as always), providing the Georgia locations with a chilly yet sumptuous beauty. The production design is excellent, the music effective and the performances are powerful – were it not for stiff competition from the likes of Tom Hanks and Chiwetel Ejiofor I might tip Jackman for a second Oscar nomination (and never say never). Furthermore, Villeneuve’s direction is very effective, handling the material steadily and drawing the viewer into the respective situations of the families and the detective. This makes the problems with Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay all the more frustrating, as so much good work is undermined by the plot developments. The final half hour probably feels more disappointing than it is “bad” because the first two hours were so gripping.
The film’s slide into generic conventions disappointed me, much like Side Effects did earlier in the year. Side Effects abandoned its compelling moral questions about medical ethics and the pharmaceutical industry in favour of lazy conspiracy conventions and dubious sexual politics. Similarly, Prisoners abandons questions over how far is too far and provides a ham-fisted conclusion with mistaken identities, murky pasts and confused religious conspiracies. But whereas I found Prisoners’ return to generic territory disappointing, the friend I saw it with found it comforting. He had a similarly contrasting reaction to Side Effects, uncomfortable with that film’s engagement with moral issues and quite relieved when the film resolved itself as a conspiracy thriller. This demonstrates the pleasure of easy resolution, whatever the moral issues are, everything can be tied up with the narrative conventions of the genre.
The contrast of our reactions is very interesting, as I see the great potential of genre as an arena for exploring big ideas. Science fiction and horror are particularly good for this (see the Thinking Film Collective), but thrillers work too, especially in terms of sociological and societal issues. Se7en and Zodiac, the most obvious influences on Prisoners, are, respectively, a parable about sin and a tale of obsession(s). At its best, Prisoners is an investigation into various forms of imprisonment – the girls, Alex and eventually Keller in physical prisons, while the Dovers and the Birches are trapped in prisons of fear and grief (I would have liked more of the Keller family especially unravelling), and Loki is imprisoned by his obsession with the case. The film’s investigation into imprisonment enriches the generic features, which work fine on their own but in a more gleeful way. Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) is a more gleeful thriller, a neo-noir that revels in its generic tropes and is a lot of fun. Prisoners and Side Effects offer different pleasures through their engagement with moral questions, but depending on your taste, the abandonment of these questions and return to generic frameworks may be a source of relief or frustration.