prisoners, top of the lake, and the paradox of being almost sensationalized

I went to go see Prisoners on Friday based purely on the director’s pedigree. I never saw Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, but it got great reviews, so I wanted to see what he’d do with a Hollywood movie, the kind whose plot would normally make me roll my eyes. I like to say my beef with Hollywood isn’t that it makes escapist, sensationalist entertainment, but that it makes it poorly, so whenever I see a lauded filmmaker take on Hollywood-type material, I’m rooting for the movie.

Before I go on, be warned that the rest of this essay spoils about as much of the movie as the trailer, which is to say about 40%:

Another reason to see Prisoners was that I found the mere name compelling. Think about it: As you can see from the trailer, the kidnapping of two little girls kicks off the plot, but then the father of one girl imprisons the prime suspect to get him to tell them where the girls are. The plural title here — Prisoners not Prisoner — draws a parallel between the little girls and Paul Dano’s creepy dude. When Dano becomes another prisoner, he loses his unadulterated menace and becomes something more complicated, and the title of the movie announces its interest in that complication.

I find that fairly often the mark of a great movie is that it echoes an idea or theme like this, where a concept like “prisoner” is used again and again, but with variations each time, and often to link apparently disparate people and events. (There are more uses in the film, but I’m sticking to the 40% spoiling rate here and you should just take my word for it.) If you want to see a master class in this echoing effect in a Hollywoodian context, check out The Prestige, probably Christopher Nolan’s single greatest artistic achievement and a damn fine movie. That’s a premium example, but you could also see Prisoners to get a feeling for this approach, which is pretty much what I was looking for when I went to the theater.

Even more unusually — maybe uniquely? — I was even drawn in by the art of the title in the promotional material, in which the “o” of “Prisoners” is filled in with a maze. This later turns out to be a motif in the film, but I found it awfully evocative before I knew that, maybe because I saw the maze as representing the moral confusion of the characters or the futility of their efforts to navigate their fates.

Or maybe I’m just fascinated by mazes.


Obviously, I was predisposed to liking this movie, and mostly I did, but I had some odd self-conscious reflections while watching. Specifically, I could tell that I ought to have found the movie more ridiculous than I actually found it. The trailer doesn’t give you a sense of how twisted the plot is, but it is, and the likelihood that the average person would stumble into a thicket of intrigue this complex is surely tiny. For that matter, it’s even more unlikely that such a convoluted story could be fully uncovered by the detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

To Prisoners‘ credit, what we’re talking about is only about as implausible as the average installment of Law and Order, so I won’t harp on that. More interesting to me was that Prisoners doesn’t feel half as unlikely as Law and Order, and I’m honestly a bit puzzled as to why not.

This is a potentially huge discussion about the conventions of films vs. the conventions of TV, but I’ll just throw out a few ideas stemming from field observations: For one, the movie takes place over the course of only a week, but its running time is 2 1/2 hours. Prisoners‘ drawn-out length gives its plot more weight, and the plot turns seem more earned for coming at a slower pace.

I think the choice of camera placement also has something to do with it. Prisoners has a lot of perspectives that don’t feel native to television or even more generic thrillers, and the unexpected angles add to a feeling of voyeurism and complex identifications. I saw in particular a lot of shots that were at an odd remove, like an early one that puts the audience inside the car that Hugh Jackman’s family is approaching.

There’s also probably a lesson in here about the spare use of music, but at the very least I hope you see the paradox I’m pointing up, even if I can’t explain how the overall effect is achieved.

Over the summer, I watched Top of the Lake, a BBC/Sundance Channel miniseries, and had a similar sort of paradoxical feeling, where I was drawn into the show and felt like I was watching a great indie movie, but realized that objectively the plot was kind of over-the-top. Top of the Lake didn’t feel sensationalized or exceptionally plot driven, but compelling and moving in a natural, powerful way. That was enough to get me to watch the seven-episode run, but at some point, I became frustrated with various plot holes that felt like the faults of a much less serious, much more crass sort of show. (See below for a run-down of my complaints.) This probably says as much about my own biases toward television as it does about television’s actual practices.

The biggest contrivance of both Prisoners and Top of the Lake is that a bizarre set of coincidences lead to a tight web of coincidences between four or five characters, especially when it comes to the relationships of cops and criminals. Such are the compressions of thrillers, sure, but I’m trying to explain that the respective textures of this movie and that show almost made me forget the basic implausibility of it all. In Top of the Lake, this compression effect is just the beginning of a series of annoying plot fails, confused motives, and head-scratchers, and I can’t shake them off enough to really enjoy the show. In the case of Prisoners, I can suppress my desire for realism enough that the tone of the film is enough to for me to be satisfied. So, paradox resolved, more or less.


(If you’re interested, here’s that list of my issues with Top of the Lake, which I’ve been waiting to inflict on share with anyone who wants to commiserate: Why doesn’t anybody seem to remember Elisabeth Moss from when she lived in the area before? Why are those people at the bar so heartless about the missing girl, which isn’t normally a sentiment people express in public? Why doesn’t Matt decide to send all those guys to find his daughter much, much earlier? What, exactly, is Holly Hunter’s credential for being a guru? How come the head cop character is friends with the head criminal element of the town and nobody, not even Elisabeth Moss, seems to care? And speaking of the head cop, I understand that there’s an explanation for why he has such a nice house, but really, do cops usually even want a house like that? It looks like something you’d imagine a conceptual artist living in, not a cop. Etc. And this list is only what I recall without any notes.)

2 thoughts on “prisoners, top of the lake, and the paradox of being almost sensationalized

  1. I thought Prisoners was a superb film, one of the best Hollywood thrillers I’ve seen, but I fully agree about the highly improbably plot twists and chain of coincidences. What allowed me to overlook these was the authenticity of the characters that the screenwriter and fine cast had brought to life. It’s as if I can tolerate any number of rather unbelievable things happening in a plot, so long as they’re happening to a believable character.

    • Yes, and I think that shows that for many people — me included — the psychological involvement of a movie matters more than what is happening in the story.

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