Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
Kidnapping thrillers often lull us into a sense of safety in the opening sequences, showing the normal rhythms of life that will soon be shattered. Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" does not go that route. It opens with a shot of a snowy forest, where a deer quietly noses around for food. Into the frame comes the barrel of a shotgun. We hear a prayer being intoned. Boom, the deer goes down. The camera pulls back to show a father (Hugh Jackman) and teenage son (Dylan Minnette), in day-glo hunting gear staring at their kill through the ranks of bare trees. On the drive home, the father, who seems humorless, intense, and a bit of a bore, lectures the son on how to always be prepared for the worst in life.
This opening is so heavy-handed that it's amazing that the film doesn't instantly collapse under its symbolic weight. Shot by the great Roger Deakins, regular cinematographer for the Coen brothers, the movie is drenched in rain and drained of color. Aspects of "Prisoners" are effective, but for the most part it's rather ridiculous (despite the fact that it clearly wants to be taken super-seriously), and there's an overwrought quality to much of the acting.
Keller Dover (Jackman) is an independent contractor who lives with his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and two kids in a suburban neighborhood. He loves Bruce Springsteen, "The Star-Spangled Banner," hunting, and hoarding canned goods, gas masks, and survivalist gadgets in his basement. On Thanksgiving, the Dovers go to dinner with a neighboring family, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who have two kids the same age. While the parents drink wine and talk in the living room, the two little girls ask if they can take a walk. It is a walk from which they do not return. Panic ensues, especially when it becomes clear that a creepy RV, which had been seen parked in the neighborhood earlier, has vanished. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.
The RV's owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is dragged in for questioning. Forensics say the RV is clean of physical evidence, but Alex is strange. he speaks in a whispery high voice that makes him sound like a pre-teen. It is not inconceivable to think that he may be hiding something. This is clearly Dover's take, and he and Loki immediately start to butt heads about the course of the investigation. When Jones is released due to lack of evidence (into the custody of his aunt, played by Melissa Leo), Dover takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping Jones, and holding him hostage in an abandoned dilapidated building. Dover loops in Franklin Birch on his plan to beat the truth out of Jones. Birch is horrified at the sight of Jones tied to a sink, but he ignores his own moral compass in the face of Dover's furious certainty. This is one of the subtler points of the script: how certainty can override doubt with sheer force, and how doubt is often essential to maintaining our humanity.