The first time we see seven-year-old Hannah Dover in the latest film from French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, she appears in the reflection of a rearview mirror – an appropriate framing since once Hannah and friend Joy Birch go missing after a Thanksgiving dinner, she always seems closer than she appears.
The girls’ parents react differently to the girls’ disappearance: the Birches, Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard), sob quietly in their kitchens and stomp through the surrounding woodland by their home searching for the youngsters. Meanwhile, the Dovers take a different stance: mother Grace (Maria Bello) denies that her girl is gone and floats to sleep after gulping down pills, while father Keller (Hugh Jackman) waits impatiently as the police regret to charge Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who he believes abducted them. The girls were fooling around on the back porch of Alex’s RV around an hour before they went missing.
What does a Bible-quoting, deer-hunting, family-serving man like Keller do when dealt with an unfathomable danger? He takes matters into his own hands so that his daughter can be delivered from evil. Keller kidnaps Jones, takes him to his father’s boarded-up home, and beats him to a pulp, boiled and hungry for answers. Keller is more than just a character, but a symbol of American rage in response to terror. It just took one of Canada’s premiere directors, Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), to brace audiences with an American hero that is sympathetic but who is senseless and hard to stand behind, as his reactions turn increasingly violent and volcanic.
A sense of dread palpably hangs over Prisoners (A-), a thriller as dark and uncompromising in its subject matter as a major studio could ever tread. It is also the best mainstream American film to come out this year. Villeneuve uses music sparingly, letting chases through the woods and scenes where an intruder scours through his victims’ homes create a near unbearable suspense. Meanwhile, Roger Deakins photographs the film with muted grays, apt since the truth is so foggy.
Meanwhile, the four actors portraying the abducted girls’ parents all react to the unsettling situation with nuance, layering their levels of grief and menace. Jackman is especially fiery, trembling and his eyes full of bloodshot rage as his victim remains mute and numb to Keller’s shocking interrogation procedures.
Jake Gyllenhaal is also great as Detective Loki, who has been dealt a bad fortune in a case that seems to offer any concrete answers. The first time we see Loki, he is stuck at a Chinese restaurant quizzing the waitress on the Chinese Zodiac – bringing to mind another thriller with Gyllenhaal poised to solve a labyrinthine crime, David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Like that film, which also ran more than two-and-a-half hours, Prisoners is a long film that never feels lengthy despite the investigation continually hitting dead ends. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski gets credit for keeping his film an absorbing pulp mystery. Even when the case gets cold and risks losing audience interest, he brings in more labyrinths to occupy the viewers – the issue of the characters’ moral responsibility.
The disturbing moments that blacken the atmosphere – scenes of bloody beatings and charred corpses – are merciless. Like Villeneuve’s harrowing earlier features, Polytechnique and Incendies, the director does not flinch away from point-blank violence. He has made yet another absorbing character study by capturing people tied to systems of value at their breaking point.
It wasn’t long ago that American politicians lambasted Zero Dark Thirty for implicating that the CIA used torture to find Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts; consequently, it’s bizarre that a film where the protagonist applies similar methods to coerce a suspect into talking isn’t receiving similar controversy. Prisoners is a thriller seething with cynicism and sinister undertones about the lengths one will go, and Villenueve uses spare imagery and music to cut right to the bone of this chilly mystery.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been one of Hollywood’s best young actors, from his breakthrough film role as a sexually abused minor in Mysterious Skin to his charming, romantic leading man virtues in (500) Days of Summer. In his first film as writer/director, he adopts yet another role of misplaced sexual desire, although as a character who would find that latter film lame and manipulative. Don Jon (D+) shows Gordon-Levitt’s confidence as an audio-visual stylist (one of the film’s distributors is the actor’s production company, HitRecord, which specializes in creating and remixing music); unfortunately, he has a lot to prove as a screenwriter.
Among many of the principal errors the rookie scribe makes: there is no rooting interest for Jon, the protagonist Gordon-Levitt plays. Jon spends his evenings scouting out big-breasted women at clubs on the Jersey Shore, rating the busts and faces on a 10-scale with his two under-sexed companions. Often, Jon lasers in on a beautiful babe, grinds with her on the dance floor and takes her home to his pad.
However, sex does not fulfill him. In fact, he finds sleeping with women less stimulating than watching pornography; an entertainment Jon does not even realize is simulated. He goes to church to repent for his crude actions, but has no intention of stopping.
The only barrier standing between Jon and his favourite adult sites is Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, who looks like a live-action Jessica Rabbit, except incompletely drawn). Barbara is the first girl he is drawn to having a meaningful relationship with, although she sets up a rule that as long as they are together, he cannot watch porn. In most circumstances, dating a starlet like Scarlet should be enough to cleanse any straight man’s libidinous palette, but not this film’s protagonist.
Jon is one of the most obnoxious protagonists to hit a multiplex in some time, with the limited appeal and accent of a Jersey Shore cast member, as well as dim intelligence. One of the only interesting characterizations Gordon-Levitt gives Jon is having him exclaim the Hail Mary’s as repentance for his sexualized lifestyle during his workouts.
Gordon-Levitt fills his film with examples of a mainstream media filled with soft-core enticements, such as a scintillating commercial for a fast food sandwich. However, his script has little to say about this omnipresence of sex in American society, except that it exists and helps to form smug men like the protagonist.
As a screenwriter, Gordon-Levitt tries to show a change within the protagonist by including a subplot involving a lady in one of his business classes (whose topic is vague, as is his career as a bartender, featured just at the start for a few blurting seconds). This character, Esther (Julianne Moore), turns into a sponsor for Jon to cure him of his addiction, but its formation is unconvincing. Gordon-Levitt has difficulty finding a way to blend this aspect of the story comfortably within Jon’s journey of debauchery and self-indulgence.
Don Jon seems less like a satire than a slick vanity trip that does not have the longevity of even a 90-minute feature, as it plods along with a repelling character whose sculpted exterior doesn’t hide a morsel of his hollow interior. Don Jon is slick and shallow, a film about a chronic masturbator that is itself masturbatory.
Meanwhile, entertainment website We Got This Covered published a review of mine late last week. Since I have a deal with the site’s editor, Matt Joseph, not to print my reviews for him elsewhere, I will instead provide a link. I reviewed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (C+) and found that it fell short of the charming and funny original. It keeps its predecessor’s zany energy, but favours frantic action and weak, pun-centric jokes over character and plot development. You can read that review here.