prisoners_ver2_xlgOn the way home from this movie, I thought about what I could have done during the two-a-half hours that would have been more productive, enlightening, or entertaining than sitting and watching this pretentious, unpleasant little piece of torture porn. Here’s the top ten, in no particular order.

  1. I could have done two loads of laundry.
  2. I could have watched most of “Reds” with Warren Beatty.
  3. I could have learned more about Syria.
  4. I could have re-read that great article in Time from a while ago about the cost of healthcare.
  5. I could have swept and mopped all the floors in my apartment.
  6. I could have napped.
  7. I could have made a cheesecake from scratch.
  8. I could have watched 2.5 episodes of “Pretty Little Liars.”
  9. I could have watched any one of the David Fincher movies that “Prisoners” is ripping off (mainly ‘Se7en”).
  10. I could have watched director Denis Villeneuve masturbate to “Se7en” because that’s clearly what this movie is anyway.

That’s what I did all the way home, because truly thinking about the things I would have rather done than watch this movie was more pleasant than directly thinking about the movie itself.

The weird thing is, where pure sensory absorption and emotional input is concerned, “Prisoners,” is successful. The production design is magnificent, rendering the bland wasteland that is rural Pennsylvania and its residences with almost painful accuracy. It’s November, and the weather alternates between unrelenting slate-grey clouds and torrential freezing rain. The tract houses and split-level homes where our drama takes place are welcoming as a warm respite from the elements, but you can practically smell the black mold and mothballs emanating from the walls and attics. As a set-piece, as sheer, unvarnished Americana, it is striking.


Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard
Rated: R

It’s when you add the people, and the words, and the plot, that everything starts to go off the rails. Hugh Jackman is a loving (if creepily reactionary and expert at survival tactics) father. His wife is Maria Bello, and Terence Howard and Viola Davis are their friends. Their two daughters go missing, and a young man with mental retardation (Paul Dano) is the primary suspect. There’s a grizzled, disillusioned detective (Jake Gyllenhaal, who looks way too young to be grizzled or disillusioned about anything.) And judging from the trailers, it’s not a spoiler to say that Jackman, in a fit of grief-stricken insanity, kidnaps the primary suspect when he fears he’ll be let go, and tortures him for information.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking many things. This movie is too long. Gyllanhaal still looks like he’s 12 years old. And he’s a pretty crappy cop. Jackman’s ok, but why does the white family of the abducted girl get way more screen time than the black family of the abducted girl? The dialogue’s kind of over-expository. Oh my god, seriously. This movie is way too long.

And then, as the kids say, shit got weird.

Film academics (and pseudo-academics such as myself) like to gab a lot about psychic experience of sitting in a theater. But I’ve never really thought about the psychic experience of specifically sitting with other people. With strangers. But that experience came into incredible focus when I realized that the extremely vocal group behind me during the film screening were not just able to empathize with Jackman’s character (which I did). They were into the torture. At one point, when Jackman threatens to smash Dano’s hands with a hammer, one of the gentlemen behind whooped and said, “Yeah! Get him!” When Terrence Howard is thinking about releasing the kid but then decides not to, someone next to him said, “I know that’s right!” And even among those who were quiet, who didn’t shout in support of Jackman losing his mind, there was a frisson of excitement. You could swim through it. What’s going to happen next? What’s he going to do to the kid now?

Now you might not have heard this the first time, but I’ll say it again. The kid that Hugh Jackman is torturing repeatedly for over an hour of collective film time has mental retardation.

What has happened to us? I’ve never been a nervous nelly, wondering who will think of the children. I’ve never had a problem with violence in film. I believe that art is supposed to be a reflection of the world we live in, not a sanitized version, and violence has been a form of entertainment since the beginning of man. I still believe that, and there’s something to be said for a movie that can so vividly evoke that kind of collective reaction.

But what I saw in the theater frightened me. And I am not a gal who’s easily spooked.

I will say this- you will keep guessing until the very end. But when you finally figure out the puppet master behind this insanity, the whole that comes from these parts is so hilariously stupid it ruins any tingling one would get from such a twist. It’s M. Night Shyamalan ridiculous. It’s that bad. And after 2.5 hours of feeling like your faith in humanity has been sucked dry, you don’t particularly care who did it.

It’s not the filmmakers’ fault that there were a bunch of trolls sitting behind me at the theater. But it is their responsibility to look at something with a keen eye and ask whether their message is worth the content. The message, of course, is that everyone is corruptible given the proper motivation. That’s a message that’s been hammered home for literally thousands of years. But there’s something wrong if our reaction is not repulsion, or even cautious empathy, but full-throated encouragement and almost sexual fascination.

This is rapidly becoming not a review of a movie, and more of a review of us, and I’m the last person who should be reviewing anything that’s not on screen. I should stick to what I know. The dialogue is over-expository, and the ending is lame. There you go.

Now let’s never talk about it again.

About The Author

Emma Johnson is a Blast Magazine critic whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe

3 Responses

  1. Jesse Ventura

    You do realize he did NOT have a mental disorder and that it was an act to never tell so that they turn the families into “demons”.


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