Prisoners has some creepy, unsettling moments, but not enough to justify devoting 153 minutes of your life to it. The set-up involves two families whose lives are torn apart when two of their children (one from each family) are kidnapped on Thanksgiving. Fingers are pointed at the slow-witted driver (Paul Dano) of an RV that was parked in the area but the local police (led by Jake Glyllenhaal as a troubled, twitchy police detective) can’t make the charges stick, so Dano is released—to the everlasting wrath of one of the grieving fathers (Hugh Jackman). The religious, blue-collar Jackman, ultimately abetted (albeit reluctantly) by Terrence Howard as the other father, decides to take matters into his own hands, firmly believing that justice will be done. And when conventional interrogation techniques prove ineffective, Jackman decides to employ other, more questionable methods…meanwhile Glyllenhaal sifts through his own conflicting emotions and other leads in his own pursuit of justice.
The movie unfolds at a deliberate pace, hoping to envelop the viewer in the myriad emotions and issues that come to the surface. Yet the pitfall of this approach is that, lacking a strong script (by Aaron Guzikowski) and firm direction (by Denis Villenueve), the mind is left to wander…and wonder. For example, why is Glyllenhaal so twitchy, considering his flawless record in solving cases? If he is so good at his job, why do clues that scream out at the not-so-casual viewer manage to elude our ace detective Jake? How can this police department be so inept as to not follow certain persons of interest or even stake out a vigil for the victims? (I tell you, this particular police department is so woeful that Mayberry’s Barney Fife would be their star detective).
Prisoners has a lot of Oscar-caliber players being encouraged to give their all at every moment—there is very little modulation there. Hugh Jackman, fresh off his thesping as the most Miserables-est of them all, gets to endure another lifetime of agony, only within the span of a few days. Yet one remains curiously unmoved, especially when he is unleashing a verbal barrage at detective Jake. The tirade feels too precise for the viewer to think there’s anything behind it, other than the need for another try at that gold statuette. Likewise, Maria Bello are Viola Davis are forced to suffer nobly as the spouses, while only Terrence Howard brings any sort of recognizably human agony to the proceedings.
For all of you who have been waiting for Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese to reunite, the good news is they’re together again (along with Michele Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones) in The Family. The bad news is that this time, there’s a middleman here—Scorsese only executive produced, with the directing (and co-writing) reins handled by Luc Besson. Under Besson’s flaccid direction, the movie generally just sits there, or ambles along from set-piece to set-piece (Spoiler alert: I’m going to spill practically everything, but if you really want to enjoy the movie, don’t see the movie—see the funny, fast-paced trailer instead).
DeNiro and Pfeiffer (along with their offspring Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are a former Mafia family who are now moving to Normandy as part of the witness protection program—having previously outlasted their stay in another part of France. Tommy Lee Jones picks up his check as their dour, wary handler who advises DeNiro and familia to ingratiate themselves with their neighbors by any means necessary—namely throwing a big house-warming barbecue. In the meantime, the family’s “friends” are in very hot pursuit, and are finally alerted to the family’s whereabouts by a plot development so outlandish that the movie wallows in it.
The Family’s big problem is with the family members themselves—they’re too self-indulgently violent to be laughed at—rather the viewer is left to suffer their excessive outbursts which are usually not justified by the perceived insults. Early on DeNiro is viewed disposing of a pretty dead body, then soon after, beating a hapless plumber to a bloody pulp for trying to pad his bill. Pfeiffer blows up a grocery store for some anti-American slights, while daughter Diana savagely beats a would-be teenage seducer with a tennis racquet. The camera lingers on the brutality, while insisting this family is worth preserving in some form or other. At the end, after a huge amount of carnage, the family unit emerges stronger than ever, ready to move elsewhere. Yet my lingering feeling is that it is the world that should be placed in protective custody from them. Under the circumstances, the performers do what they can, but there is little you can do when the DeNiro character is made to watch Good Fellas. It’s a vivid reminder that you can wring humor out of violent situations in a way that’s missing from The Family.