Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
The compelling, morally complex mystery film Prisoners tells a story of child abduction in suburban Pennsylvania. Two families, the Kellers and the Birchs, come together for Thanksgiving lunch and are enjoying a lovely day until they realise that both of their youngest daughters are missing. When their search proves fruitless, the abrasive Detective Loki, a specialist in finding missing persons, is put on the case. However, the kidnapped girls are not the only prisoners the film’s title alludes to. While Detective Loki continues his investigation, Dover Keller takes things into his own hands. In his desperation he abducts an intellectually challenged man who he believes was involved in his daughter’s abduction and knows her whereabouts, and sets about trying to persuade him to speak by any means necessary. It is at this point that Prisoners ventures beyond the realms of a standard abduction mystery movie and becomes a statement on America in the post-9/11, war-on-terror era.
As America continued its search for Osama bin Laden in the latter part of last decade, details started to leak about the extreme persuasion tactics being employed at Abu Ghraib (tactics confronted on screen last year in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and American society was struck with a moral question. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it will save lives? In Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski confront that same question but put it on a smaller scale, personalising it. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it can save your daughter’s life?
It is this central moral question that makes Prisoners so painful and so compelling. Simultaneously we want Keller to stop because he might be wrong, but we want him to keep going because he might be right. What is the worse scenario in his mind: that he be wrong and as a result has tortured an innocent man, or that he be right and miss possibly the only opportunity to save his daughter’s life? As such Keller is at the same time the protagonist of the film and one of its chief antagonists. As we struggle to settle on our moral response to the actions being depicted, we are presented with another possible response by Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, who upon discovering what Keller is doing tells her husband, “We’re not going to help Keller, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” Her reaction appears to be Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s indictment of an American administration and society that would turn a blind eye to things it could not stomach so long as the ends justified the means.
The first Hollywood film from French-Canadian director Villeneuve, Prisoners is a well-structured and executed mystery with strong performances from its principal cast, a number of whom are playing against their usual character types. For a savvy audience that is programmed to expect plot twists, Prisoners still manages to surprise you. There are some moments at which you feel like plot and character elements are missing –for example Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is quite an interesting character in terms of his mannerisms and presentation and you expect a backstory that is never forthcoming to explain why he is the way he is – but the film is none the less a gripping, intense mystery.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini
“We got him.” Those were apparently the words President Obama uttered as confirmation came through that Osama bin Laden had been killed at 12:30am (‘zero dark thirty’ in military speak) on the 2nd May 2011 as part of a successful raid on a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Less than two years later, Academy Awards winning director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story of that mission to the big screen. She was able to turn the movie around so quickly because it was already in development at the time bin Laden was killed, though significant rewrites were required as it was originally intended to be about the unsuccessful decade-long manhunt.
Maya is a young CIA analyst assigned to the operation to find bin Laden. When interrogation of a prisoner (more on that later) reveals the name Abu Ahmed a-Kuwaiti, supposedly a personal courier for bin Laden who everyone has heard of but no one can identify, Maya becomes fixated on the idea that finding him will lead them to bin Laden. But not only is Maya a woman in a man’s world, she is a young woman in an older man’s world, and as the search continues over a number of years, she consistently finds herself butting heads with male superiors whose Cold War era understanding of intelligence makes them difficult to convince.
Zero Dark Thirty is effectively a historical drama in the style of a thriller, set in the very, very recent past. This makes it a bit strange on two fronts. As a thriller, the fact that you already know the resolution creates an unusual dynamic, and as a historical drama, it feels odd watching a recreation of events which still feel like part of the present. The strangeness struck me in a moment when President Obama appeared on a television screen in the background of a shot. I’m used to seeing much older Presidents on television screens in movies; JFK, Nixon or Reagan, not the guy that I see on the news every night. Historical dramas usually require a bit of distance from the events they are trying to depict in order to gain some sort of objective perspective. For example, despite his impressive track record of historical dramas, Oliver Stone’s biopic W. was terrible, and one of the primary reasons for its shoddiness appeared to be that it was too biased and politicised a film. Released in late 2008, in the final months of Bush’s second term as president, the film had an obvious agenda leading into the election, which coloured its portrayal of characters and events. It is for this reason, among many others, that Bigelow’s film is a great achievement. Zero Dark Thirty manages to depict very recent events which are still hot-button topics with a sort of neutrality, without being preachy or didactic in any way.
It is this currentness of events that has landed the picture in a bit of controversy. One of the hottest political issues to come out of the hunt for bin Laden at the time was the role of torture and humiliation tactics in CIA intelligence gathering. The first third of Zero Dark Thirty contains some quite graphic and very confronting scenes of CIA interrogators using the torturing of prisoners as a means of getting them to divulge information. These depictions have prompted some commentators to accuse the film of endorsing the controversial practice. Others have come to the defence of the film, including Michael Moore who wrote this article for the Huffington Post.
Watching the film myself, I never felt that I was watching a pro-torture film. The film doesn’t shirk away from showing the central role torture played in early intelligence gathering, but when you think about it there was no other option. Could you imagine the equivalent shit-storm that would be surrounding the film if Bigelow had somehow tried to undersell the role of torture or even write it out of the history completely? It was such an ugly and public controversy that it had to feature prominently in the retelling of the story. However, as Bigelow herself has argued, depiction is not the same as endorsement. I would add to her point that a film containing characters, even protagonists, who endorse the practice of torture is not the same thing as the film itself endorsing the practice.
The scenes of torture, particularly the waterboarding, are very difficult to watch. And therein lies the key. They are difficult to watch because of where our empathy lies. As Moore alluded to in his argument, at no point do we find ourselves empathising with the interrogator, hoping that he can break the prisoner and make them talk. In these scenes we always find ourselves emotionally aligning ourselves with the tortured prisoner, even when we are told of their supposed role in the 9/11 attacks. That we find ourselves compelled to side with the ‘enemy’ in the scene suggests that the film is anti-torture.
After her critical success with The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s direction of Zero Dark Thirty cements her as the world’s premier director of films about modern warfare, a very different beast to the style of combat which has for so long been the staple of the war movie genre. The final raid on bin Laden’s compound is masterfully staged with a gritty realism. The methodical way the soldiers go about performing their task is very interesting and makes for a really engaging scene, even if it is not the big, high-octane payoff that a thriller usually ends with. The tension is impressive given the potential for the film’s third act to be a massive anti-climax with everyone knowing exactly what happens. Bigelow’s failure to be recognised with an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category was one of the bigger surprises of this year’s nominations.
With Bigelow’s profile as a director meaning she is forced, whether she wants to or not, to wave the flag for women in film, it is also pleasing to see her direct a film with a female protagonist. Jessica Chastain delivers a very strong performance as Maya and is one of the favourites in the Best Picture category at this year’s Oscars. Over the last couple of years Chastain has emerged as a talented and versatile performer. She was delightful in The Help as the hopeless housewife and social outcast, Celia Foote, and also caught people’s attention as Brad Pitt’s wife in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. As Zero Dark Thirty’s determined heroine, Maya, Chastain shows us something different again. Her roles in The Help and Tree of Life were both very emotionally open characters, here she plays her cards much closer to her chest. She is very closed off and methodical, living for the job.
Zero Dark Thirty is different to any thriller or war movie you have seen –our protagonist isn’t an action hero, she’s a desk jockey – but it is no less thrilling. It is a masterfully orchestrated film that takes you inside the intellectual process of finding the most wanted man in the world.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean