If the Toronto International Film Festival had a first name, it would be O-S-C-A-R. And its middle name would be H-Y-P-E: Hype. The five most recent winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo) all received their official North American premieres at the TIFF. So on the front-loaded opening weekend. you can’t swing a cat — or a Crash, another Best Picture that premiered here — without hitting a sizable sonic wall of O.B.: Oscar buzz.
It begins with the cheers that greet famous actors striding onstage, often a half-hour after showtime, to promote their new movie; last night, at the debuts of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, the assembled stars included Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo — all Oscar winners or nominees — joined by designated U.K. hunks Michael Fassbender (Magneto!) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes!) and, twice, Paul Dano (he was in both movies). The O.B. reaches its TIFF climax with the thunderclap of audience approval as the closing credits start to roll. It spreads southward as critics chip in with their encomiums; the studios maneuver their actors through TV interviews; and, voilà!, by November an awards campaign is spawned.
(READ: Corliss on Toronto and the lust for Oscar)
Simple math teaches that there are more movies with Oscar Buzz than movies with actual Oscars, so some of this hype must fall on fallow ground. And, truth to tell, an Oscar-winning film is not always a good one. So whatever the ultimate disposition of Prisoners, at the box office or in the Academy, we have to play Cassandra: Don’t buy the hype.
A family-drama crime thriller, Prisoners fits the TIFF formula of artistic ambition plus star quality. It presents Jackman, your favorite Jean Valjean and Wolverine, turning from two types of Big Movie to a seemingly small one: a naturalistic film in which he plays Just a guy named Keller Dover. Keller lives in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife Grace (Maria Bello), their teen son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and younger daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), whose best friend is Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), daughter of their neighbors Nancy and Franklin (Davis and Davis).
Anna and Joy disappear shortly after Ralph notices a strange van parked on their block. The local cop, Loki (Gyllenhaal), apprehends the van’s driver Alex Jones (Dano), a shy, creepy loner, and after questioning, lets him return to the home of his stern Aunt Holly (Leo). That’s when Keller shifts from ordinary Joe to righteous or demented avenger. He kidnaps the kidnap suspect and tries to torture a confession from him.
For years, Aaron Guzikowski’s script was one of those inside-Hollywood-famous unproduced screenplays. It pushes familiarly grisly serial-killer tropes in a couple of novel directions; if you anticipate the film’s ending, you’re way ahead of us. And it achieves its art-house bona fides by borrowing from the vengeful-parent motif of the 2001 In the Bedroom. The project might have seemed perfect for David Fincher — except that Fincher had already made two similar films, Se7en and Zodiac. (Gyllenhaal more or less reprises his Zodiac character here: a sleuth obsessed with heinous crimes.)
So the job went to Villeneuve, who snagged a Foreign Film Oscar nomination for Incendies, another, better drama about mortal family secrets. Watching Prisoners, you can detect the clever, comely outline of Guzikowski’s script inside the flab and pretension of Villeneuve’s directorial decisions.
The movie, which clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, is 40 mins. or an hour longer than it needs be. The needless padding comes from the actors repeating essential lines of dialogue two or three times — you know, because that’s what real people do. (But do they? And, in a movie, should they?) The stars get to vent anger, but only in clichés: Jackman smashes things; Gyllenhaal trashes his office desk.
In a nod to the clichés of mainstream movies, Prisoners has a climactic chase scene, en route to a hospital; apparently Loki is the only cop in Pennsylvania, and, even though grievously wounded, cannot call on reserves to help him. And when the film should be tightening the narrative screws, it allows itself grand-opera delusions, giving virtually every major character a final verbal aria. Perhaps Villeneuve was paid by the number of minutes in the release print.
Among the actors, Leo steals scenes with her usual steely resolve. Dano pumps his whiny-disturbed persona (also on gaudy display in 12 Years a Slave) to a new register, and it works. David Dastmalchian is excellent — chatty, modest with some subtle telltale psychopathy, as one of the kidnap suspects. And Gyllenhaal does Gyllenhaal; he’s good at that. (The African-American actors are given little of import to work with; they are the merest black herrings.)
Jackman tries hard to fit his outside frame into a common-man mold, and then into a creature who may be as deranged as any child molester, but he is saddled with ludicrous lines — such as when he whacks Alex and screams, “Why are you making me do this?” — to drive home the point that we are all prisoners of our psyches. Maybe if he sang it, like Jean Valjean…
We’re not saying that Prisoners won’t find admirers when it opens in real theaters in two weeks. It may be a beneficiary of the famous TIFF O.B. But this is the rough cut of a good movie, and a splendid opportunity wasted.