Maybe the fact that Zodiac doesn’t have an ending is a blessing for it. Making the ending work is always the hardest part of a procedural mystery because if things are played fair and straight the audience can be many, many steps ahead of the characters. There is no solution to Zodiac, and so the movie becomes a procedural about procedure and obsession, not about actually solving a crime.
Prisoners has an ending, and that’s where the film stumbles. For more than two hours Prisoners is a gripping, twisty and exciting story about two girls abducted in the middle of the day, the one father who will do anything - including torture a potentially innocent retarded man - to find them, and the detective who is tasked with getting them home. It’s only in the last twenty minutes of the movie that the wheels get shaky - they don’t quite come off, but you get really worried about the structural integrity of it all.
Hugh Jackman is the dad, a devout Christian family man whose beautiful young daughter simply vanishes on Thanksgiving, along with the daughter of his neighbor (Terence Howard). While his wife (Mario Bello) falls into an almost catatonic state, Keller is driven to action. The first suspect, a feeble-minded man who had parked his RV on Keller’s street (Paul Dano, doing his twitching, beta male Paul Dano thing to perfection), can’t be held without charges. Keller, convinced he’s the kidnapper and that he knows where the girls are, abducts him and begins torturing him for information.
Meanwhile Detective Loki (don’t worry, his name is indicative of a larger, on-the-nose metaphor that includes astrology tats on his knuckles and a Freemason ring on his finger) is trying to close the case while also dealing with Keller, who is clearly out of control. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, with his shirt buttoned to the collar but without a tie, one of the worst fashion choices in film this year) has solved every case he’s ever been on, and he’s driven to make sure this abduction doesn’t break his streak. Along the way he discovers a mummified corpse, family secrets and butts up against the bureacracy of his police department.
Prisoners plays out like a crime novel, with twists that twist back on themselves and red herrings that end up revealing more than anyone imagined. It’s the sort of story that has in recent years been confined to television, and with its length Prisoners sometimes feels like a miniseries. But there’s a particular cinematic quality to Prisoners, some of which comes from the star-caliber of its leads, but some of which comes from the way the frame is use to express space. This isn’t a movie that demands the big screen, but the chilly, empty winter scenery becomes immersive on it.
Prisoners is Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut. The director of Incindies brings a thick atmosphere of low hanging dread to the picture. The cold Pennsylvania scenery matches the gray moral complexity at the film’s heart. Villeneuve gives his actors space to settle into scenes, making the film feel almost totally unmodern American. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to take its time, to let a scene play out as long as it needs to play. But Villeneueve also makes masterful use of limited information, sometimes ending a scene just as something momentous is about to happen, opting instead to focus on the aftermath.
That space allows both Gyllenhaal and Jackman to give great performances. Both are ever-so-slightly miscast - Gyllenhaal never quite convinces as the driven cop and Jackman isn’t at his best when he’s called on to be naturalistic - but they manage to overcome their own shortcomings to surprise again and again. Those surprises come because they’re playing against type in so many ways.
Of the two Jackman definitely has his eyes on the Oscar prize the most. Keller is the showier of the two roles, allowing him to go from uncontrolled rage to chin-quivering breakdowns. Keller also occupies the deepest part of the film’s moral quagmire - how far would you go to save your child? It’s the kind of moral question that usually gets fobbed off in action movies like Taken, but Prisoners really gets a chance to sink its teeth into the question.
But that ending. Aaron Guzikowski’s script was on the Black List, and for most of the movie you get it. Nobody writes films like this anymore, where characters have lives outside the frame, where every character feels like their own person and has a chance to show that. More than that, Prisoners is a movie that is so deftly written that it keeps you constantly guessing; each new piece of information recontextualizes information you previously had. The twists never feel like cheats, but like next logical (if unguessable) link in a labyrinthine chain of events. And then it comes to the end, and what had been so smart and nuanced and interesting begins to fall flat. The villain delivers exposition to fill in the blanks, heroes show up in doorways at the nick of time and the entire case takes on a metaphysical nature that doesn’t quite betray what came before but certainly feels like it doesn’t gibe.
With a better ending - not a better solution to the mystery but just a better way of arriving there - Prisoners would be a masterpiece in the too-rare big screen procedural genre. As it is Prisoners is a very good film, with two hours of extraordinary, gripping filmmaking and twenty final minutes of subtle deflation. I am actually excited to see the film again, to find out if foreknowledge of where it all goes makes the trip there better.