Apr. 17th, 2014

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I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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