Home > Reviews > PRISONERS – Jóhann Jóhannsson

PRISONERS – Jóhann Jóhannsson

prisonersOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Prisoners is a dark, difficult, compelling film about the lengths to which one will go to find truth and justice. It’s the English-language film debut of French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve; set around Thanksgiving in a snowy Pennsylvania town, it follows two families: Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), whose lives are thrown into chaos when both their pre-teen daughters go missing, presumed abducted. A suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is quickly arrested, but is just as quickly released when the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) can find no evidence linking him to the crime. However, with the girls still missing, Keller Dover remains convinced that Alex is responsible, and will stop at nothing to prove his guilt.

The squeamish will not find Prisoners an easy film to experience; neither will the easily distracted, as the film progresses at an almost glacial pace, taking its time to reveal its secrets and spending as much time setting the scene of the dreary, grey, frost-bitten industrial town in which the film takes place as it does pushing along the plot. Despite technically being a thriller, Prisoners unfolds like a character study; Villeneuve delights in showing the audience long, lingering shots of icy neighborhoods, framing his characters behind rain-spattered windows, and indulging in long periods of near silence, as characters simply regard each other, trying to work out motivations and thought processes. As such, the film has a real sense of haunting melancholy, and this is helped immeasurably by its moody, sparse score.

Prisoners is the first ‘mainstream’ film scored by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who previously attained critical acclaim for his post-modern classical works, and his scores for smaller independent films and documentaries. Jóhannsson’s score is a curious combination of church music, orchestral minimalism, and an electronic drone, which shrouds the film in a cloak of brooding introspection. It suits the film perfectly, creating an eerie atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire movie; unfortunately, when removed from its source, the score is intriguing but wears out its welcome fairly quickly, mainly due to the repetitiveness of the themes and the lack of and great variation in the makeup of the sonic palette.

For the most part, every cue is identical: soft, mid-range electronic tonalities overlaid with string sustains – high violins and low cellos – which are occasionally enlivened by the inclusion of a soft choir, and what sounds like a church organ, but is actually an instrument called a cristal baschet, which is similar in tone to a glass harmonica. The opening “The Lord’s Prayer” sets the tone for pretty much everything to come, with a series of vaguely liturgical chords, deliberately paced and mesmerizingly hypnotic. This motif, which effectively acts as the film’s recurring main theme, carries on into “I Can’t Find Them”, which increases slightly the volume of the glassy electronic textures, and highlights the cristal baschet further in the cue’s second half., and reappears frequently in several later cues, including the almost unbearably tense “The Priest’s Basement”.

Parts of the score remind me of the more abstract tones James Horner wrote for Braveheart, or something that Mychael Danna or Carter Burwell might have written for one of their dreamy, faraway dramas, but where these scores had a thematic presence to make the drone tones tolerable, Prisoners just presents the drone tones: they’re effective in context, but far too often they head too close to being boring on their own.

With virtually no thematic content to connect with, Prisoners instead relies on slight changes in tempo, mood and orchestration to convey its emotions. The switches are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, but they are there, and they do affect things quite significantly. The dark, descending scales in “Surveillance Video” give the cue a sense of palpable dread; conversely, the return of the cristal baschet in “The Candlelight Vigil” gives the score a soothing, almost meditative air.

Later in the score, “Escape” introduces a startling ground cello element which is so vastly different in terms of timbre than anything heard up to that point in the score, its appearance comes as a shock to the system. The ethereal voices which appear in the cue’s second half is similarly unnerving, sounding like a choir of ghostly angels lamenting for the film’s missing children. The cello reappears in the oppressive “Following Keller”, but is immediately counterbalanced by the beautifully atmospheric “Through Falling Snow”, which is almost the perfect musical depiction of wintry desolation, and is probably my favorite cue on the album.

The desperately dark “The Keeper”, with its undulating basses and cellos grinding away down in the depths, actually reminds me a little of some of textural parts of Hans Zimmer’s Batman scores, while two of the score’s conclusive cues, “The Snakes” and “The Trans-Am” rise to great heights of buzzing cacophony and ear-shattering dissonance, before plumbing its lowest depths of cello-led misery. The seven minute finale, “Prisoners”, is at least a little more hopeful, presenting a series of variations on the four-note central motif for higher register strings, and even managing to work in some hesitant woodwind accents, providing a few slightly warmer and more appealing moments of crystalline beauty.

While I appreciate the score for Prisoners, and while I fully acknowledge what Jóhann Jóhannsson was trying to do with his music, I can’t actually bring myself to like it. The experience of listening to this score is almost like an exercise in internal self-reflection; the music is so bereft of conventional emotional content, you almost have to project the emotions onto the score yourself – which, in a way, is what the director was trying to do with the film, making the audience decide whether or not to empathize with a sympathetic protagonist who does such terrible things in the name of justice. I’m not sure if there has ever been a zen-like existentialist film score before, but if not, Prisoners may come close to being the first.

Buy the Prisoners soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Lord’s Prayer (2:31)
  • I Can’t Find Them (4:09)
  • The Search Party (2:54)
  • Surveillance Video (3:34)
  • The Candlelight Vigil (5:10)
  • Escape (5:44)
  • The Tall Man (2:47)
  • The Everyday Bible (2:23)
  • Following Keller (2:11)
  • Through Falling Snow (2:44)
  • The Keeper (2:49)
  • The Intruder (3:11)
  • The Priest’s Basement (2:48)
  • The Snakes (2:51)
  • The Trans Am (2:37)
  • Prisoners (6:59)

Running Time 55 minutes 33 seconds

Watertower Music (2013)

Music composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Conducted by Ben Foster. Orchestrations by Dana Niu. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Joseph S. DeBeasi. Album produced by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

  1. Craig Lysy
    October 10, 2013 at 5:34 am

    I completely agree on all counts.

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