Prisoners (directed by Denis Villeneuve)
About forty minutes into the picture, my wife whispered, “I think I’m leaving.”
“You are?” I asked with envy or admiration.
“It’s ridiculous and revolting,” she said.
“That’s being gentle,” I said.
She reminded me that she is gentle and asked if I was coming too.
“I can’t,” I hissed. “I’ve got to write about it.”
“If only they knew, you’d be so much kinder if you didn’t have to see it.”
And then she was gone, and I was left in the empty barn. Well, there were a few sprawled bodies, like corpses. I could hear the munched cud of popcorn being processed. Still, the afternoon movie theatre these days can be an outer zone of purgatory. Meanwhile, I knew that Prisoners had the best part of another two hours to go. Nearly always, these days torture is delivered with studious slowness. It feels as if there must be schools where it’s a major.
I don’t know where this film is set, even if a lot of it was shot in Georgia. We are on the edges of bleak suburbia, but close enough to woods so that a teenage son can shoot himself his first deer for a Thanksgiving dinner. The deer just topples over; it knows to take a dive and get out of there. Thanksgiving is two families—Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. They go through hell in the film, and they are supposed to be friends, yet they hardly seem to talk to or know each other, as if one ingredient of this godforsaken place is the silence that has deadened relationships long ago. It lets you realize the dreadful territory where American films are occurring, nowadays, places where nature has succumbed to development (and then development has been abandoned). You look at the place and think, Good God, do people have to live there? There was a time on the American screen when terrain was epic and Edenic—like the Grand Tetons or the canyons of Manhattan—or engraved with honest sentiment: like the Smith family house in Meet Me in St Louis or that airport in Casablanca (which really was just past Burbank), where all the good guys wear hats at the same brave angle. Those places were fanciful, but they grew out of the notion of America as a promised land. Today, that shine and its hope are gone. Pictures go in search of real, cheap places to do their work, and America begins to look like a Soviet wasteland where the decaying billboards for forgotten advertisements bind up our wounds.
In the somnolence after this Thanksgiving, the four parents discover that two of the children have been kidnapped. A local policeman is called in to investigate: It’s Jake Gyllenhall starved of sun or any evident life and with a twitch that is settling on him like the ague. He vows to find the children but what the film really unearths is a rotten world where children may be taken prisoner, but their elders are already captive to the barren place and the dogged superstitions that have replaced hope. A young man with a mental age of ten (the woeful Paul Dano—he seems made to suffer in pictures) is seized upon by a father and shut up in a cell in an abandoned building—not that you can always tell the empty places from those where families are clinging on.
This is a picture directed by Denis Villeneuve (who directed Incendies) and written by Aaron Guzikowski who also wrote Mark Wahlberg’s noisy but inert picture, Contraband—Wahlberg is an executive producer here. My wife was modest in her dismissal. Prisoners is hideous, cruel, degrading, depressing, relentless, prolonged, humorless, claustrophobic, and a mockery of any surviving tradition in which films are entertaining. And 153 minutes.
I hate it for its subject matter and for the dead-eyed way it is treated. Not that I have any right to deplore or attack American films because they are as drawn to such subjects as vultures are to corpses in the desert. Anyone has a right to try to turn a buck, and as torture becomes more common we have to think of job opportunities. Prisoners played at Toronto and Telluride and it has had some positive reviews. My feeling about it is not just a matter of finding it good or dreadful. It’s more that periodically a film critic asks whether our culture can go on and on with these ordeals without having them sink into our nervous system.
Am I calling for censorship, or banning? Not at all. But I note the quantity of our films that are preoccupied with torture, ugly deaths, imprisonment and the recurring image of someone pointing a gun at the dark as if it was a wand meant to conjure demons. The texture of our movies and their imagery are not just chance. They deal with things that terrify us and those we yearn for, and sometimes those two are the same. In Psycho, that binary relationship made for art and a picture as fresh now as when it was made, and perversely laced with comedy. Prisoners is weary after ten minutes, and I suppose it has persuaded itself that its length is justified by its solemn gaze into the abyss. I feel for the actors, most of all Melissa Leo, a woman who doesn’t like to do a picture without a grin, a spurt of humor or some little bit of flirt or mockery. She is a dire witch here and I suspect that the unleavened malice pained her.
It may seem squeamish or elderly to complain at such cruelties when they have their place in the world. But their place in life is so much less than it is on screens. Hollywood once was misled by its own daft pursuit of happiness, but something more sinister has set in with the pursuit of pain and misery and the chance to see a human face battered and bloody beyond easy acceptance. How do they do this? a child might ask, and the answer would have to be, Well, my dear, we have acquired astonishing skills at degrading and ravaging the human face—perhaps it’s a job that would interest you? Of course, pious thoughts of taking care have put an R on Prisoners, and you can buy into the notion that this mayhem is regulated. In fact, the R means that the tiniest children can be exposed to the film so long as they are “with” a parent or a guardian. I put it that way because “with” in the dark is so hazy a watchdog. It’s another matter to wonder what those innocent eyes absorb in the dark and how much fear they learn from it. But it’s a final irony that the parents in Prisoners are led into brutality and indifference. Movies once were escapist, and there were follies in that urge. But as Prisoners opens up its graves, ill lit, underground, dank, beset by horrors, snakes, and demented human beings, it’s as if we were ready to frighten ourselves to death. And critics have no ticket for escape.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.