Both films this post deal with similar themes: young girls kidnapped or killed, and the men who try, against great odds, to rescue them or find their tormentors. Both are artful, skilled pieces of filmmaking, and both will have many fans – and, I daresay, each will have its detractors as well.
Prisoners **1/2 (out of five)
The inciting incident – two gorgeous little girls are kidnapped in a Pennsylvania town – is enough to deter some potential viewers. If you are indeed the parent of a little girl, this is certainly not for you.
What happens next is a lot grimmer, however, as a cop (Jake Gyllenhaal), stymied by the necessities of carrying out his job in a lawful manner, comes up against one of the girls’ fathers (Hugh Jackman) who decides that no action is too severe in the pursuit of finding his daughter.
The film is a dichotomy: it is beautifully and thoughtfully constructed on a technical level (while obviously being hugely influenced by the work of David Fincher, particularly Zodiac) while also being, occasionally, tasteless and extremely ugly. The camerawork (the great Roger Deakins) is sublime and the soundtrack is spare; scenes unfold at a pace that suits the material – that is, with the plodding, methodical laboriousness of a difficult and obfuscating police case. Villeneuve has a voice, however derivative it may be.
But that voice also seems to want to draw attention to itself by showing just how naughty it can be, and the film’s violence – which, I have to put here, include very disturbing scenes of torture – is somehow self-congratulatory. I love dark cinema, and I have sought out and seen the most disturbing films in existence (I would put A Serbian Film at the top of that bleak list), but most of those reside in the horror category. Prisoners seeks to be a top-notch, A-List drama, but actually reveals itself to be a squalid exploitation film with A-List credentials. It seeks to ask heavy questions of us – the most basic being “How far would you go?” – but the way the characters themselves respond to these questions is pretty ludicrous. They service the demands of a nasty plot, rather than the plot arising from more realistic character intentions.
At two hours and thirty-three minutes, the film is way too long, and becomes more unbelievable – and loose with its own internal logic – as it goes along. By the time it’s over, its immaculate style has given way to a yucky experience; the film, frankly, feels like it’s grim for grim’s sake.
Mystery Road ***1/2 (out of five)
Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road is, in terms of story beats, a completely conventional – indeed, by-the-numbers – police procedural. It opens with the discovery of a body; proceeds to introduce us to a lone cop, just returned to his old beat, who, under-resourced and mistrusted by the community, must not only deal with the baffling mystery and unresponsive and antagonistic locals but also with the indifference, and potential corruption, of his own police department. Along the way he discovers a personal connection to the crime. So far, so well-thumbed.
What lifts this atmospheric and affecting film from its genre limitations are its milieu, its striking visual style and its truly enjoyable, low-key performances. Mystery Road is a dirt road near an outback town populated by a mix of Aborigines and whites; our protagonist, Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is indigenous, straddling the blackfella and whitefella worlds and comfortable in neither; and the various townsfolk he encounters are played by some of Australia’s best actors doing subtle, precise work. (For his part, Pedersen, mark my words, will have Hollywood calling once they see him in this: he’s a modern hero, a Bogart or Eastwood for the 21st Century.)
Sen shot the film himself and his images are superb. He uses formal compositions, dollies and a particularly striking motif – a helicopter shot, directly perpendicular to the ground, that follows Swan’s car as it slowly navigates the quiet streets of the town, looking for all the world like a toy car on a dusty toy set. It’s effective in many ways, simultaneously speaking to the town’s character, Swan’s isolation and the sheer difficulty of the mystery: Swan’s car seems almost aimlessly moving in a maze of streets that are so similar, they must almost inevitably reveal nothing.
Mystery Road takes its time, which is to say it has a slow pace, but it’s a deliberate pace, measured and precise, and, although the film is not hugely suspenseful per se, it always maintains a particular tension. The finalé is absolutely terrific and one of the best examples of its kind in recent years – Hollywood could learn a thing or two from it. This is an engrossing, unique film and well worth a look.