Prisoners is a step up for U.S. thrillers but a step down for Villeneuve

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens September 20th
3 out of 5

Normally when Canadian filmmakers jump the border, they land in genre flicks (David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone) or little-seen prestige pictures (Atom Egoyan, Chloe). Denis Villeneuve would have none of it. Prisoners is his first film after the acclaimed Polytechnique and the Academy Award finalist Incendies. It’s a star studded, moderately expensive affair, including six Oscar nominees (one winner) and Paul Dano, for good measure.

Prisoners deals with a subject that keeps most parents — especially those susceptible to media fear-mongering — awake at night: stolen children. In the aftermath of Thanksgiving dinner, two little girls go missing from a blue collar suburb. The only clue the police have is an RV that was parked in the vicinity. Even though the two sets of parents are predictably distraught, one of them, Keller (Hugh Jackman), takes it particularly hard. A taciturn man, Keller butts head with the policeman in charge (Jake Gyllenhaal) and launches his own investigation (more like vigilante justice). His target: The only person of interest in the case, a man with the intelligence of a 10-year old (Dano at his creepiest) who has been freed due to lack of evidence.

The film follows both investigations, which intersect constantly: Gyllenhaal’s Loki is an effective detective who doesn’t play with others. Keller is blinded by the notion the police let the man responsible go, and will get him to talk whatever means necessary.

The first half of the very lengthy Prisoners — two and a half hours — is by far superior. Villeneuve uses everyday life to flesh out his characters and up the ante. Under the filmmaker’s gaze, the drab look of suburbia turns menacing (the movie looks far slicker than Villeneuve’s grungy Quebec-based films). Without any artificiality, Prisoners can be singularly oppressive experience.

Then the powers-that-be — producers, agents, studios — kick in. Twists fly left and right, and balance is restored to the Force (I’ll never understand Hollywood’s obsession with proportional retribution). Hugh Jackman pushes the limits of his public persona, but never far enough to jeopardize his “good guy” image, even though his character calls for it. I’m sure that left to his own devices, Villeneuve could have found a more satisfactory ending, one that doesn’t betray his set-up.


The Act of Killing
Sept. 19-22 RPL Film Theatre
3.5 out of 5

The 1966 Indonesian revolution that installed General Suharto cost the lives of one million alleged communists. Most of these men and women died at the hands of death squads operating with impunity under Suharto’s watch. Unlike other countries where massacres like these took place, the leaders were never prosecuted (for the killings at least), and some are still politically active.

The Act of Killing is an audacious film by Joshua Oppenheimer and an international team of documentarians (including executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and a number of anonymous contributors). The movie adopts one of these vicious strongmen, Anwar Congo, the “founding father” of the largest paramilitary group in the country, three million strong. Oppenheimer and company provided Congo with resources and professional assistance to recreate for the camera some of his customary activities during the communist purge — namely interrogation under duress, pillage and murder.

Initially proud of his actions, a desensitized Congo is all too willing to share tales from the craft, including a disturbing contraption of wood and wire used to strangle people with a minimum of effort. Slowly, the horror of his actions seeps in and the death squad leader struggles to harmonize his hero status with the criminality of his deeds. In a remarkable sequence, Congo asks if torture victims felt as miserable as he did when briefly tied to a chair for a scene. Oppenheimer responds: “Much worse”. Congo cries. The lack of self-awareness is astonishing.

As phenomenal The Act of Killing’s achievements are, the film tends to become repetitive and the brutality of Congo’s actions never transcends the screen. Nonetheless, The Act of Killing is a paradigm of the power of documentary filmmaking and should get as much attention as possible.