Fear for pleasure is an odd concept. One which is used so often by Hollywood that it’s now seen as regular, but one which when looked at more closely calls into question where on earth our fascination with sheer awfulness stemmed from. Many sources attribute the spring board into this trend as the Gothic literature of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Monk, Northanger Abbey – even Wuthering Heights arguably falls into this bracket. Upon coming into contact with these culturally now very significant stories, Western culture became quickly hooked on the sensation of terror, or perhaps more accurately, the notion and emotional implications of the unknown.
In the last ten years, the film industry has been working its socks off to expand the awfulness section of its CV. Lars Von Trier has shown us a wife severing her own clitoris while masturbating (Antichrist), Justin Kurzel bought the Snowtown murders – the crimes with the most press injunctions ever imposed on a single tragedy – to the big screen, Tom Six also felt the need to surgically attach three tourists to each other mouth to rear end (Human Centipede). Films as extreme as these invariably receive mixed reviews, but similarly will more often than not either get some good recognition at international film festivals, or become ‘cult’ films, so awful and banned in so many countries that the bad reputation purely serves to make them an even hotter ticket.
Now, Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ has had an admirable bash at adding itself to the ranks of these films – utterly and unapologetically harrowing, this film does an excellent job of making you want to vomit into your popcorn at numerous points. While it doesn’t possess the extremist and fantastical qualities of some of the films mentioned above, what it does do is put you through 153 minutes of near hell, heaving you from one awful situation to another, creating a genuinely tangible feeling of panic and anxiety for the duration. Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a seemingly unbreakable father who’s daughter gets snatched during a Thanksgiving dinner, along with the daughter of neighbours Franklin and Nancy Birch (played by Terrence Howard and the brilliant Viola Davis of ‘The Help’ fame). The two families, quickly followed by the local police force (Jake Gyllenhaal playing the protagonist cop), are whipped into a progressively more intense frenzy as they realise the two young girls aren’t just playing an elaborate game of hide and seek. Dover goes to Liam Neeson-esque lengths to get his girl back, with the main victim of his monolithic like destructive force being Paul Dano’s local dog strangling recluse, Alex Jones.
Morally this is a very difficult film. While on the one hand it does clearly deplore the abhorrent use of torture we see, it does also feel very desperate and frantic, hopeless even. What on earth would you do if you were in his shoes, would you go as far as he does? Perhaps what Villeneuve is trying to do here is to incite a similar feeling for the viewer as that which the parents would have surely felt at the prospect of losing their children, with the frantic spiralling of the film in the second half mirroring the spiralling of the parents’ sanity as the clock continues to tick. Either way, the plot holes that reveal themselves make for an altogether less complete film, making Prisoners more impressively horrific rather than satisfying.
Brilliant performances from Jackman, David and Dano make this a film worth a watch, but expect to feel properly exhausted by the time the credits finally roll.
3 out of 5.
So realistic that it could be seen as either utterly unenjoyable – or a piece of film making gold.