Overt Alright – Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners


Having commented and attached a thesis of Escalation to the superhero genre that has dominated much of the post-9/11 American blockbuster cinema (most notably the superhero genre) I’d like to take this one step further and suggest that the theme is one that defined a large section of the American cinema in general, in the wake of the fallout out of 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and economic despair.

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a compelling, if not heavy-handed and very commercial picture. It’s the kind of movie that crowd-pleases and comfortably horrifies in equal measure. Religious iconography litters the opening sequences of the film, while a muffled rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner scores the film’s catalytic sequence. Ultimately though it’s the filn’s “subtext” that suffers most from a sense of the overt. Echoing Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, the underlying analogical narrative of Prisoners is practically pushed in to the realm of default ‘text’, such is it’s glare. To project an American tendency for barging in to a scenario running high on emotions and gut instinct.


These emotions and instinct come in a Hugh Jackman-shaped vessel. Part-conspiracy nut, part-concerned father, Jackman’s Keller Dover is every inch the anti-big government, anti-authoritarion symbol of that interpretation of the American dream. He faces off against Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, a man more interested in the intellectual pursuit of truth and closure. Both are archetypes, but well realised and satisfying ones. Loki has history. A tattooed heavy-set neck and sports ring alludes to a specific past, while it’s a testament to the performance that we feel a certain degree of understanding for the figure in spite of the fact that we don’t even hear his Christian name spoken in the film. It’s the actors most interesting and challenging performance for some time.

While never as existential, the detailed procedural recalls Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, while an ugly underside evokes David Fincher’s Seven far more than the commonly cited Zodiac (although it has been joked that what is Prisoners if not “That Really Scary Bit In The Basement In Zodiac – The Movie“), with the psychological terror not on display as horrifying as Hollywood’s most explicit piece of Torture Porn. Villeneuve goes as far as to rely upon his audiences own imagination to process the ultimate fate of one character, as opposed to explicitly spelling it out. He understands that what is in the viewers mind is far worse than anything he can create. Villeneuve’s film emits a satisfying sense of pace and place. Rain turns to snow as conflict lingers a broken post-recession Americana. A minor masterpiece of technique in places, Villeneuve’s vision is brought to the screen via the lens of Roger Deakins, arguably the most celebrated of British cinematographers since Jack Cardiff.


While ordinarily a genre that flirts precariously close with the televisual, it’s refreshing to note that Villenuve approaches his take on the material with a satisfyingly cinematic eye. Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter might just be the key touchpoint, with it’s pushing of the real to such an allegorical extent that it becomes hyper-real or fantastical. A snake bite and subsequent race for life can’t help but remind of a similar sequence in the Coen’s remake of True Grit, itself an homage to The Night Of The Hunter and shot by Deakins. That both sequences in both films employ a slightly skew aesthetic shift to portrays these scenes is a nice coincide too. Elsewhere Villeneuve recalls and subverts the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with a specific nod to the shot in which Norman Bates gazes through his handmade peep hole.


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