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How much evil do you need to do in order to do good? No, that was someone else. Hugh Jackman’s approach is similar, though: how much ruthlessness is justified in order to achieve the right goal? He plays the father of a disappeared, supposedly kidnapped, daughter, he is not satisfied with the efforts of the police and of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in particular, and he just won’t sit down and wait for things to play out by the book. Quite late in the film, in a strong scene of confrontation taking place in a car in the midst of a ghastly snow-rain, for maybe the first time he explains himself, and makes the very good point that there is not much else anybody would do, with a kid (or rather two, as her friend disappeared as well) missing for a couple of days, with the statistics speaking more against her reappearing with every minute that passes. How could a father be expected to do anything else but do whatever is available to him?

Now the tension between this understandable logic and the fact that his character is a very unpleasant, self-righteous man create the strength of the film. I understand what he’s doing, but I still cannot develop sympathy for him beyond the one he earns by the sheer fact of his daughter’s abduction. Beyond that he is a terrible person, somebody who I suppose nobody would like to have as their father or spouse. He needs to weigh the chances of his actions against what the police is doing, and whenever his own actions could endanger the regular investigation, he decides that he is right, they are wrong. He insists on doing the right thing, and puts blame on whoever is available, preferably Gyllenhaal’s detective Loki. Of course Hugh Jackman is still the most handsome boy in the hood, and a man-crush of mine if there ever was one (actually, there might be three…), but he makes it very tough for me to adore him in this film. Will watch his robot combat film again for catharsis…

The location of the action does not help to make me feel better: perennial rain and cold, a dull suburbian atmosphere clustered with remnants of what some may call a brighter past, a rather depressing setting in general, and in particular one could feel sorry for the poor sods who have to join search parties in the pouring rain, grazing though every bit of the woods to find a trace of the girls.

This dense atmosphere, the contrast of the diligent, talented, and obviously very skilled detective on the one side and the vigilante brute on the other, the very obscurity of what  actually happened… this made a great and memorable film. Up until a very specific moment, when I felt this beautifully constructed piece of art almost irretrievably collapsed and plot construction became plot convolution. That moment which turned “Prisoners” from one film into a very different one had to do with the discovery of some blood not being what or whose we thought it was. I am sure in some copy of the script somebody made a dash at that point and noted at the margin “plot twists galore from here”. None of the twists were necessary, most were detrimental to what had been built up before, whichever way the plot would lean became a rather arbitrary spectator sport. A regular average thriller is what the film turned to become, while it could have been an intense drama about a clash of characters and the question down which dark passages pain (and arrogance) a man can go, bending rationality and hurting others in more way than one.

I think the strength of the first two acts will ensure that my memory of “The Prisoners” will be a find one, but I am not sure time will heal the disappointment about a missed opportunity.

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  1. By Arrival (Denis Villeneuve 2016) | thomas4cinema on 09 Mar 2017 at 11:30 am

    […] sudden twists and turns less talented writers would have fallen for. Denis Villeneuve excels again: Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival… what a run!. Together with screenwriter Eric Heisserer he has created a […]

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