Classically Contemporary Noir: On the Quintessential Film Noir Style of PRISONERS

5 January 2014

Film noir ruled the American silver screen in the 1940s with landmark films: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Mildred Peirce, etc.  While the sensation of noir plateaued, the style of filmmaking has continued in its most traditional form, as well as variations of the style inspired by many of the classic uses of noir in its 1940’s heyday.  In America cinema today, not a year goes by without a noir’s release, and that release is typically celebrated with awards and accolades, in part for this continuation and progression of such definitive, distinct, and influential a style of filmmaking.  Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) is one of this year’s noir contributions, and, unlike many modern noirs, Prisoners does not attempt redefining the noir style experimentally; instead, Prisoners looks back at the most traditional uses of film noir’s style and, arguable, roots itself in the success of the past while entertaining audiences of the present.

Prisoners’ plot is incredibly complicated; however, briefly, the film follows Detective Loki (pronounced low-key, a distinct lighting style on film noir) as he investigates the disappearance of two young girls, Joy Birch and Anna Dover, on Thanksgiving day.  Immediately, suspicion falls on a local man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has seen in his parked RV around the time and place the girls were last spotted.  However, when he is interrogated, authorities learn a childhood trauma in Alex’s life stunted his development, limiting him to the IQ of a child, making it seemingly impossible for him to pull of the abduction of these two children.  Yet, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), Anna’s father, does not believe Alex is innocent, despite his limited cognitive ability, so he abducts Alex, hiding him in an abandon building Keller owns.  As Keller tortures Alex for information, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends days tirelessly investigating the case.  As each clue leads to a dead end, and the case begins to look like fragmented pieces without hope of connectivity, Joy reappears, having escaped from her capturers.  Her reemergence in the film shines new light in select characters and their motivations, eventually tipping both a desperate father and devoted detective off to race time in solving mystery of Anna’s location.


Many films today use elements of noir, but with their own, individualized concept of the style.  However, Prisoners does not try to redefine noir as much as it tries to rediscover it.  Some of the major elements for noir are (the aforementioned) emphasis on lighting (specifically low-key), symbolic uses of reflections and reflective props, and narrative complexity.  These traditional elements of noir create the noir style because, when combined, a dark, cynical, even hopeless tone pervades throughout the film, typically causing a somber, even pessimistic conclusion.  These very elements, and the tone created by their combination, are all in Prisoners and are what define the film as a quintessential noir.

First, Prisoners recursively uses low-key lighting.  This distinct lighting style does two things: celebrates the dark and, with one or more key light(s), creates a stark contrast between what is lit and unlit.  This element of noir appears almost immediately in the film.  For example, when Detective Loki gets the call that two girls have gone missing (while he is eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on a dark, rainy Thanksgiving night…evidence of noir in setting), he immediately begins his investigation, which quickly takes him to a gas station with a mysterious RV parked in the back.  The shot of the gas station is lit with low-key lighting, using only the station’s lighting fixtures to poorly illuminate the scene.  This use of lighting creates mystery; for all the audience can see, more remains in darkness.  Moreover, when Alex eventually exits the RV and is questioned by Detective Loki the low-key lighting continues.  Loki shines a flashlight, the only form of light, the key-light, on Alex’s face, emphasizing blackness all around Alex.  A similar, but more dramatic, effect is used with Alex later, when he is held prisoner in Keller’s sweatbox.  The only light that enters the box comes through a small hole, which leaves most of the shots from inside the box in total darkness, suggesting the blackness that originally surrounded Alex in the previously mentioned scene with the flashlight has grown; darkness, slowly and mysteriously, is consuming Alex.  Low-key lighting hides more than it reveals, and, in these three examples from Prisoners, the film’s use of low-key lighting builds mystery by emphasizing, symbolically, how much of the plot remains unseen, how “in the dark” the audience and most of the characters actually are to the events unfolding.



Moreover, a classic maneuver in film noir is the use of reflective props for the camera to capture action and images through.  These props typically include mirrors, glass, etc; these prop appear as frequently in Prisoners as the low-key lighting.  For example, in his home’s bathroom, post-abduction, Keller looks himself in the mirror, and the camera captures this stare from behind Keller so that all the audience sees of this man is his reflection.  Filming a character through a reflection is indirect and, therefore, slightly untrustworthy because the shot is not straightforward.  This is useful for Keller because, by this point in the film, motivated by the disappearance of his daughter, he is keeping secrets and quickly (d)evolving into as monstrous a villain as the character who took Anna and Joy.  Other noteworthy uses of reflective objects occur with character Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), Alex’s aunt.  She is often seen through glass, such as her glass porch door.  It is not necessarily her reflection the audience sees, but, nevertheless, the audience still sees her through a reflective object, buffering a straightforward view of the character.  Additionally, Holly and Alex both wear large framed glasses, more reflective objects which impede direct views of them.  The indirect nature of the shots these characters is captured in is very subtle and easy to overlook, however effectively foreshadows these characters’ respective roles in the disappearance of the two girls.  By definition, reflective object do not only reflect, they deflect, and, like the lighting, reflective objects, therefore, create mystery, as well as distrust and confusion.



The intricate plot of a noir is also critical to this particular style.  Noirs are often non-linear and traditionally difficult to follow.  While Prisoners does employ a linear narrative, the complexity of the plot and intricacy of the narrative’s structure—how much information is revealed and when—makes the plot rather quintessentially noir.  The plot of Prisoners is twisted, to say the least.  Twisted not only because it tackles the difficult subject of child abduction/murder, but also because the plotline constantly shifts, wildly and unexpectedly, introducing seedy alleyways (figuratively speaking) which do not all come together until the film’s climax.  For example, Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian), a character introduced originally as a suspect, adds only complication to the narrative.  The audience learns Bob was abducted as a child; however, he is not directly connected to these two girls disappearance, and the amount of time spent on his character is the exploration of one of the film’s seedy alleyways, expanding the narrative by keeping attention off the actual kidnapper.  Because he is originally portrayed as a threatening character, the twist here is that Bob is a victim himself, severely damaged by his childhood abduction.  Twisted narratives create tension and uncertainly in noir, and the complex and twisted plotline of Prisoners effectively creates tension and a great deal of uncertainly from start to finish.


Like all noirs, these elements must somehow fuse together to create a dark tone in the film, and the dark tone in Prisoners exudes corruption, pessimism, cynicism, alienation, and hopelessness in this macabre drama.  Playing off the mystery and tension created by the aforementioned noir elements, Prisoners effectively conveys the underbelly of humanity; the part of people who willing act inhumanely when placed in certain circumstances.  From the dreary, cold weather, to the low-key lighting, or the indirectness of reflective props to the complicated plot, Prisoners begins ominously and descends, pulling its viewers with it, to a place of such despair that the ultimate tone of the film is hopeless.  Even as the child abduction is resolved, the awareness that victims of child abduction in this film never actually recover from the LSD-laced incident occurs.  And, as the last kidnap victim blows the whistle, in hopes of a rescue, the screen fades to black.  Presumably (but not assuredly) this rescue occurs, but what would that mean?  For Keller, it will mean one form on imprisonment to another; from pit to jail cell for the kidnapping he orchestrated.  Regardless of the resolution, which is intentionally withheld from the audience, the end of Prisoners is bleak, confirming its adherence to traditional noir style.


While noirs were, at one time, sensationally popular, and today’s noirs often meet positive acclaim, Prisoners received collectively high reviews but no award recognition.  And, while Oscar may pass a favorable glance at Prisoners when it reveals its nominations later this month, what can be surmised, based on the shunning Prisoners presently feels, is that, perhaps, Prisoners looked a little too closely, or for a little too long, at the horrific, evil potential of humans.  Reaching back to noir’s roots, Prisoners makes no excuses or explanations for its unabashed look at how inhumane humans can be, and as remarkable as that quintessential noir and brazen look is, is it too difficult a thing for contemporary audiences to celebrate?


~ by Kate Bellmore on 05/01/2014.

One Response to “Classically Contemporary Noir: On the Quintessential Film Noir Style of PRISONERS”

  1. […] Classically Contemporary Noir: On the Quintessential Film Noir Style of PRISONERS […]

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