“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst” – Prisoners

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In post-9/11 America, paranoia and violence, xenophobia and religion have become a toxic brew. It is in these murky waters that the new film Prisoners trucks.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve who shows a surprising level of fair-mindedness for our nation’s current warts-and-all rugged surburban survivalism. The atmosphere is overcast and thick, defined smartly by the bleak Midwestern weather that typically blankets the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even that choice is symbolic – for what are we truly thankful anymore when real (or imagined) bogeymen lurk around every corner … and we are armed to the teeth to shoot them (as well as any neighbors who get caught in the crossfire)?

I can’t even begin to summarize the mobius strip of a plot in the limited space here. (That’s what Wikipedia is for, after all!) The long and the short of it is that two families  – one deer-hunting, Jesus-loving, stranger-phobic and the other yuppified, highly-educated, inclusive – venture across their tract home lawns to break bread on Thanksgiving only to find the young daughters of each brood seemingly vanish into thin air.

The prime suspect is RV-driving, greasy-haired, 80s-glasses-wearing Boo Radley-in-training Paul Dano (a mumble-mouthed marvel). And, as you have no doubt gathered from the trailers, hot-headed Hugh Jackman, for whose character violence is a deep-seated expression of his faith, abducts the supposed kidnapper and brutally tries to “Gitmo” the truth out of him.

The sad reality – and the film’s ultimate revelation – is that there is no black and white “truth,” in even the most horrific of circumstances, and violence only begets … well … more violence. I won’t spoil the “fun” as it were, but there are surprises (but blessedly not M. Night Shyamalan-style SHOCKS!) aplenty. The twists are all logical and integral to the plot, leaving the viewer with the perspective that if only the characters, in their rush-to-CNN/Fox-News-judgment, had slowed down for just one minute, they would have seen the real picture much sooner.

The film is a series of muted grays – visually and emotionally. Just when you feel certain in your philosophical alignment with one character (say, Jackman’s righteously raging papa) or another (say, Jake Gyllenhaal’s “facts will set you free” police detective), the story – like life – ebbs and flows and leaves you questioning your … faith.

At times, the film is a bit obviously symbolic in the way early Hitchcock could be: rain = sadness and torment, frost and snow = frustration, children = innocence lost, plaid = middle class. Yet, there is also extraordinarily complex thematic work here that I will be mulling for days.

Most notably, at the heart of the film, there is a jigsaw puzzle of faith and disillusionment and self-determination. The mantra “pray for the best; prepare for the worst” gets repeated at least a half dozen times by Jackman and occasionally by Gyllenhaal. The irony is (without ruining the film) that all of Jackman’s prayer and preparations actually make things worse while Gyllenhaal’s agnostic “slow and steady wins the race” approach proves (arguably) best in the end.

This is a mightily powerful film, extremely well acted. The powerhouse cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard (who brought me to tears for some reason nearly every time he was onscreen), Len Cariou, and an especially crackerjack Melissa Leo (about whom I potentially could write another entire entry but only by completely spoiling the intricate plot).

I don’t know how I will feel about this film tomorrow or next week or next month (my parents who viewed it Friday warned me about that) but I am so glad I saw it. I suspect this film will become a dark and unsettling touchstone for our era, and I hope one that will cause those brave few among us to question their deeply ingrained assumptions/prejudices about their fellow man.

Quick Cut: “Praise of shadows and darkness” – Complicite’s production Shun-kin

[Image Source: ums.org]

Director Simon McBurney in his director’s note for his Complicite theatre company’s production Shun-kin uses the phrase “praise of shadows and darkness.” He speaks of a time and a culture where beauty could be found in the concealed and in the unknown. The production is currently running through Saturday at Ann Arbor’s Power Center, presented by the University Musical Society (UMS) – ticket info and times can be found here.

In all transparency, this isn’t a review but more a shameless plug for Michiganders to go check out this remarkable performance that beautifully blends the theatrical and the cinematic. McBurney, clearly a student of Peter Brook (The Empty Space), fuses puppetry, sound sculpture, rear projection, a fourth (and possibly fifth!) wall smashed to bits, stylized movement to create a breathtaking stage allegory of age, gender, class tensions.

The show, based on a text by Junichiro Tanizaki, details an “almost-folk-tale” of the symbiotic relationship between a blind young woman and her devoted caretaker and of the tragic push-pull of a relationship that was both doomed and inevitably perfect from the start.

Thanks to Ken Fischer of UMS for including me in the opening night festivities, and, as a result, inspiring one of the few “high art” entries anyone is likely to see on this blog! I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you, so please check out this show. I’ve never experienced a performance that marries the visceral drama of a rock concert with the quiet, restrained soulfulness of haiku. This one does. Go see it. As UMS’ tagline reads, “Be Present.”


P.S. Enjoy fellow transplanted Ann Arbor-ite Nan Bauer’s take on the show here. A quote: “Throughout the performance, I had the feeling that it could suddenly make sense in an instant. It did, at the very end, a marvelous bit of drama that can only be achieved on a stage with a live audience.” Great piece!