Jake Gyllenhaal Is the Perfect Gumshoe in ‘Prisoners’

<i>Prisoners</i> is awesome. I loved, loved, loved it. The atmosphere, the pacing, the framing, the acting, and the subject matter are all so good. I love that my man Jake Gyllenhaal is back as a hard-hitting actor. His detective Loki is mysterious...

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Oct 2 2013, 11:00am


Image by Courtney Nicholas

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

Prisoners is awesome. I loved, loved, loved it. The atmosphere, the pacing, the framing, the acting, and the subject matter are all so good. I love that my man Jake Gyllenhaal is back as a hard-hitting actor. His portrayal of Detective Loki is mysterious, empathetic, tough, and believable—all  without a backstory. All we know about Loki is that he spends Thanksgiving alone at a Chinese restaurant and that he has never foiled a case. He is the perfect engine for this contemporary noir where each turn (well, almost each turn) in the narrative is believable and gripping. But more than that, he embodies the “complex simplicity” that Thoreau speaks of. He tells little with words but tells so much with presence and clues. Clock my man’s crazy tattoos and the erratic blinking he does whenever he is thinking hard about something. Scope his shirts buttoned esse-style, all the way to the top. These are the signals of a confident and searching actor and they signify to viewers that Detective Loki is a force to be reckoned with in his world. Even though Loki has a shadowy backstory, these little clues are all we need to fall in love with him. 

And just in case it isn’t clear: I LOVE this film. It is so dense with atmosphere and full of questions about who we are and what we believe in. It is so rich that it feels like a novel. I kept asking myself as I watched it: How did the screenwriter and director jump straight past conventional literature and create literature for the screen? Maybe someone will just have to do a book adaptation of this film. It’s that good.

Because it is so good, I want to ruminate on some things I found troubling. Think of this pondering as coming from your friend whom you saw the film with; you’re both in the car together on the way home and you’re just discussing what you liked and didn’t like about the film. It isn’t straight criticism, but rather a little detective work on the detective film itself.

At the end of the movie I asked myself what it was about, what was its point? The kids who are kidnapped by Paul Dano’s character are found, Dano’s evil “aunt” Melissa Leo is shot and killed, and everyone is happy, more or less. So, in the end, the movie is partly about Hugh Jackman’s character being pushed to extreme behavior in order to save his daughter. Plainly, it’s about a citizen who lives within the law who goes outside of the law and tortures a man for a week because he believes this man kidnapped his daughter. And if that’s what the movie is about, why don’t we see more of this act of torture? We see him punch Paul Dano’s creep-o character a couple times in the face, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen in every Stallone movie ever made. Then—in what I think is the oddest turn of events in the film—he makes a kind of torture shower and puts Paul Dano inside of it.

This almost feels like a copout because we can no longer see Paul Dano get tortured. We only see a wooden wall and his eyes through a slit. And that’s where poor Paul Dano's part ends in the movie—we never see him out again. From the trailer I thought that creepy Paul was going to make an Edward Norton-in-Primal Fear-type turn from mentally impaired creep into wicked child-abducting mastermind, but instead he spends the movie screaming in a box. Mostly this is just to say that I am a fan and wish I could have seen more of him.

The other aspect of this torture box—aside from the odd amount of time it takes to build—is that Viola Davis and Terence Howard just sit around the abandoned house while crazy Hugh Jackman builds the hurt locker and meanwhile their daughter is home alone in the bath as another creeper stalks about, stealing clothes from the children’s rooms. The problem, or at least what I question, my dear friend in the car with me, is: Why did the filmmakers chose this particular form of torture? First of all, building an instrument of torture from scratch seems a little extensive of a commitment for a man urgently trying to find his daughter. Why doesn’t he just cut the guy’s fingers or dick off instead? Why build a torture shower? Maybe the reason is that it allows the character to torture Paul Dano’s character more easily because he can’t see him. OK, I can sort of buy that, for the character, but not exactly for the movie because the audience is ready to follow Hugh’s character through almost anything for two reasons: first, he’s lovable Hugh Jackman (which is hard to forget, and even though he gives a brilliant performance I found myself asking, What is Hugh Jackman doing in this indie drama?), and second, because his character has lost his child (the logic being that if audiences are ready to side with anyone, it will be parents looking for their abducted children, and if there are villains that we want to punish more than anyone, it's child molesters, especially creepy ones with creep-glasses like Paul Dano). My point is that the movie was almost entirely set up to have Hugh torture the fuck out of creepy Paul with the audience’s blessing, which is later—WARNING: SPOILER ALERT—thrown in the audience’s face when we learn that Paul is innocent. So, why did they hide everything in the shower? Not sure.

But back to the man of the hour and why I like this movie so much: Check out Jake walking around all the creepy basements. Love it! Check out his computer-bashing rage scene. Love it! Check out the way he questions motherfuckers, holding his gun like a real gumshoe, and races the girl back to the hospital with blood running down his face like a champ. Love it!

Still, one last question: What was up with the mazes? Why mazes? Just asking...

Previously - Writing to Live in Hollywood

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