The Brattle’s Roger Deakins retrospective is a great example of one of the things that make the Brattle special. So much emphasis is put on giving the credit for movies we love to directors, actors, and to a lesser extent writers that it is surprisingly rare to see a retrospective based around a cinematographer. While placing this series at Oscar-time is a cruel reminder that Deakins, the best cinematographer of our time, still hasn’t won an Academy Award, maybe it will be a good luck charm and he can finally break through for his work on Blade Runner 2049. The new Blade Runner movie is a great example of Deakins’ work elevating a somewhat ill-conceived reboot running on nostalgia and a so-so script into a true work of art.
The beauty of the Brattle and of the chance at a Deakins’ retrospective is the chance to show some great movies that don’t fit easily into another kind of series. The highlight for me is another collaboration between Deakins and Villeneuve, 2013’s nearly-forgotten Prisoners. A grim thriller set in a gray November in rural Pennsylvania, the film is a moralistic and disturbing take on the familiar theme from the more explosive and breakneck Taken movies: two young girls are kidnapped from the streets of their quiet neighborhood, a father is convinced he knows who the perpetrator is, and when local law enforcement is slow to act, he takes the law into his own hands.
The film has as many twists as more commercial thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs, but never delves into camp or serial killer cliche. Hugh Jackman is unforgettable as the father out for vengeance, and there are strong supporting performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. The story acts in some ways as a treatise on the relative merits of torture, and there are no convenient good guys or bad guys; like the often mistranslated title of the arthouse classic Bicycle Thieves, the title Prisoners refers to an increasing number of people as the tightly-wound film unfolds. It’s the kind of story that would only be greenlit as a Netflix mini-series these days, even five years after it’s release: a dark anti-hero story that’s not based on existing intellectual property and not fit for a sequel or spin-off. That makes the chance to see it on the big screen (and on 35mm!) even more valuable. Deakins somehow shoots the entire film without the sun coming out — the bare branches of the trees are in stark contrast to the drizzly, overcast sky, and the dim light in the cramped interiors that make up the various makeshift “prisons” referred to in the title are evocative and chilling.
This is a film that few people saw when it came out and few people mention when writing about Villeneuve, who has jumped into the big-budget world of adapting blockbuster reboots after the success of the truly singular Arrival. But Prisoners is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years and I hope the auditorium is full tonight.
EDIT: Congratulations to Roger Deakins on his first Oscar!!
Screening this week at the Brattle Theatre at 9:30pm on Saturday, March 3 as the second half of a double-feature with Villeneuve & Deakins’ “Sicario” and as part of the series “Painting the Frame: The Cinematography of Roger Deakins”.