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Boxset Borstal: Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) – DVD review

January 29, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

The archetypal boxset movie?  Villeneuve races through a season’s worth of story, for better and worse.

(Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Last year, reviewing The Place Beyond The Pines for Total Film, it occurred to me that one of the ways in which Hollywood movies were trying to compete with the increasingly sophisticated storytelling of American television was to increase their length. That gave rise to the idea of the “boxset movie” – something that contained enough drama and ambition to fill a season’s worth of small-screen entertainment, but which is packaged into a (above average length) feature film.

Prisoners is an even clearer example of the trend, because it occupies a genre that – from The Killing to Broadchurch – has produced some of the most high-profile TV hits of recent years. Like those series, the tale of a crime involving a child combines ‘catch the culprit’ procedural with a stark portrayal of the ruined lives of family, investigators and suspects. With a running time of around 150 minutes – or 3 x 50 minute episodes – you’d expect this to run along the lines of a mini-series. Instead, Prisoners feels like a longer series pared down to its essence, with another jolting development every fifteen minutes or so acting as the internal cliffhangers between hypothetical ‘episodes’.

The result is fascinating: a lesson in the strengths and weaknesses of one medium over another. Without the ability to pause the action, this particular boxset binge is a lurchingly claustrophobic experience, a gruelling descent into the communal hell that an awful crime brings about. And yet it is also highly sensationalist, punctuating the subdued atmosphere with chases, arguments and all the usual paraphenalia that Hollywood wheels out to keep audiences hooked.

The result is nearly excellent. A clutch of great performances maintain the emotional through-line, with undue focus on actions and consequences for a ‘whodunnit.’ The film’s biggest, most subversive departure from cookie-cutter movies (Hugh Jackman’s vigilante father kidnapping Paul Dano’s weirdo in a retaliatory strike) takes the onus away from the invesyigation and into the moral conundrum of retribution, of instinct versus law. It produces compelling moments in miniature, especially Terrence Howard’s selfless portrayal of the other father: a weak, indecisive man who can’t stomach the violence Jackman advocates but cannot halt it.

Howard’s character is instructive in viewing Prisoners as a boxset film.  In a longer series, he would become a compelling character in his own right rather than a screenwriter’s construct to ‘compare and contrast’ with the hero. And yet: is there really much more to say? Sometimes less is more, and the film’s streamlining of plot – so that there is just enough weight to Howard’s portrayal without any need for long, interminable scenes of him hand-wringing – actually prevents some of the longeurs that the slow, subtle TV model has developed.

Ironically, the bigger fault with the ‘fast boxset’ approach is the linkages in the detective side of the story. Over time, clues can be fed piecemeal; here, important facts (like lead detective Jake Gyllenhaal’s random visit to a priest with a secret in his cellar) tend to get telegraphed. There’s a subplot involving mazes that is explained with such indecent haste that it ceases to become a useful piece of exposition about criminal psychology but a metaphor for how everybody is a prisoner trapped in the moral maze. Which is fine – that’s what the film’s about – but is clumsy in a purely dramatic sense. The same goes for vague hints that Gyllenhaal might have had a dark background, which makes the film start to feel like a boxset with an episode missing.

Why it works is largely down to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent direction, forcing the actors to foreground the pain and letting Roger Deakins’ typically excellent cinematography reinforce it with a muted autumnal palette and dislocated compositions. Villeneuve mostly maintains the balance between Gyllenhaal’s case-solving and Jackman’s rage-driven breakdown – at least until the final act, when the character development stops entirely to explain the story. In a boxset movie, there’s no room for the post-reveal reaction that made, say, Broadchurch such a knock-out despite the predictability of the killer’s identity. By contrast, the ending here is a little too tidy and conventional, and Villeneuve has to fashion a self-conscious fade-to-black cliffhanger in a slightly shame-faced attempt to try and preserve some of the earlier ambiguity. Trouble is, there’s a reason why some stories head for the big screen rather than the small, and it’s doubtful that Prisoners would warrant a second series.

Prisoners is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 3rd February.  Extras are limited to two featurettes, which is the biggest reminder that this isn’t a boxset after all.

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