Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why Prisoners is the Best Crime Film in Years

Last year’s Prisoners was a hell of a crime film. When I saw it earlier this year for the first time, my eyes couldn’t be pried from the screen without the use of a crowbar. It blew open the gates for what I hope to be a ‘silver age’ for the modern crime film – after so many years of just absolute crap, nothing but the worst, I really think Prisoners was a huge breath of fresh air.


Prisoners is a long, dense and dark trip. Its story revolves around a father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), whose daughter disappears on Thanksgiving dinner along with the daughter of a friend of his. As the detective on the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) races to find the kidnappers within the boundaries of the law, Keller grows impatient and begins to take matters into his own hands.

Picture from apersistentvision.blogspot.com. 

It’s just a brilliantly done film. Every plot twist just makes everything darker. The world the movie gives us is just so brutal and harsh. As much as Keller tries to make things better and return them to the status quo – i.e. with his daughter safe and sound – the worse and worse things he has to keep doing. He turns to kidnapping and then torture to get what he wants.

Picture from kianfai87.blogspot.com.

The film builds up to a blood-boiling climax – fast-paced and tense. I don’t want to spoil too much of it here, as you should go out and see this movie yourselves. With its macabre atmosphere – rife with grey skies, rain and tall trees – and the palpable fear of losing one’s child, Prisoners takes a simple, direct story and makes it an absolute heart-stopping thriller. It’s a simple back-to-basics crime story that hits you where you live.

Picture from filmschoolrejects.com. 

So, what makes it so much better than its competition?

The difference between a good crime film and a bad one is often just a matter of degrees. I mean, sure, you can measure some of them by the usual standards – bad acting, sloppy directing. But oftentimes, it’s harder to discern, and even comes down to a simple matter of opinion at times. Crime films are a pretty bare-bones subset of movies. They don’t require heavy special effects and imaginative creation of new worlds like sci fi and fantasy, and you don’t need to have the inventive scares and atmosphere of a horror film.

All you need for a crime film is the basic storytelling skills to put together a compelling mystery or ‘good guy catches bad guy’ tale.

Throw in some moral grey area, a bit of human darkness – and voila, you have a good crime film.

It’s all in the writing. It’s a meat-and-potatoes genre that you really need talent to write. In the past few decades, we’ve had some really, really good crime films. Se7en. L.A. Confidential. The Pledge. Mystic River. Dirty fuckin’ Harry – practically the genesis of modern crime films. Zodiac – what a godlike film.

Picture from youtube.com.

Recently, however, we’ve been experiencing a drought of them … with craptacular films like Law Abiding Citizen, The Call and Black Dahlia clogging up the arteries, it seemed the crime film had become a lost art. These films relied on cheap gimmicks and trashy sex and violence to reach points that were, at best, completely muddled and incoherent – if not absolutely deplorable like Law Abiding Citizen.

Because you know how it is, if your family gets killed, it's totally OK to go slaughter a bunch of lawyers and jail guards just doing their fucking jobs. Picture from westerngazette.ca.

The reason for this seemed to be the same thing that happened to horror films after Freddy and Jason caught on big back in the 80s: the dumbing-down effect. It’s the same thing that happens any time a particular subset of entertainment catches on – things get over-saturated.

SCALPS IN A FRIDGE AARRGGRRRHHRRRGGGG ... but seriously, this still pisses me off. From my review of The Call. Go check that one out for my full rant on this.

People right now are obsessed with crime stories and serial killers. Maybe moreso than before. They want more, so they get more – the only problem is, a lot of what we’re getting now just sucks. As the law of averages goes, if you continue adding in more and more of something, eventually the quality begins to slip, and as with anything, you get more and more hack writers and directors just trying to make a buck. This is unavoidable.

And yeah, don’t get me wrong – there were always crap movies in this genre. Just look at this early film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan (its title accurately describes what it will cure), or Deadfall, which I reviewed here years ago – a dreadful film. These days though, the signal-to-noise ratio is getting way too unbalanced for my liking. I think this trend started with Dexter – this trend of mental junk-food serial killer stories. Dexter was a pretty awesome show. For what it was – a pure dumb, fun show with some cool characters and exciting plots – it was great. Just a blast to watch.

Picture from morbidlyamusing.com.

There’s the cincher though – how dumb can entertainment be before it just becomes groan-worthy rather than fun?

I think you need a certain balance between the two. There’s something to be said for ridiculously over the top stories and unrealistic plots, as long as you can still make people believe in the world and characters you’re showing them. With Dexter, you did get to do that. The characters were all likable and you got into their stories and the world at large. You cared – you wanted to see more.

That’s why Prisoners is so good. You care about the characters so much that your blood curdles when the girls go missing in the first ten minutes. While you don’t get much insight into their inner souls as characters, you don’t need that. The characters are written like normal people, and written well – they could be your next door neighbors or your in-laws or your best friends. You don’t really need that much character development if you have such a good command over your writing skills that you can make the characters come alive and seem like real people just through their actions and daily lives.

Picture from nextprojection.com.

Prisoners also had a lot of atmospheric depth and nuance in the story. Whatever your connection to the film – as everyone will have a different reaction – it’s bound to have some impact. Prisoners is an engrossing and well-made film in its genre.

Unfortunately, not every film in the genre has such high standards. Many of them are content with gimmickry and cash-in, flashy writing in place of actual substance. You go beyond the point of entertainment when you can’t get into the world and the characters, when the plot holes and dumb-ass nature of the storytelling simply becomes too much. It’s a point everyone will need to define for themselves.

However, I for one hope people start to pay more attention to Prisoners. I also hope we continue to get more good films in the same vein. Let’s usher in a new era of amazing, well done crime films, ladies and gents!

Until then, I will be taking you all to the dark side of this coin when I review one of the worst films I’ve ever seen later on this week…