Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Devan Scott
It's a very nearly universally-held truth among cinematographers, directors, and anyone else involved in the creation or appraisal of film visuals that the main goal of cinematography in narrative cinema consists of telling a story or enhancing one's telling of a story through visuals. On these grounds, the work of both director Denis Villeneuve and Roger “Greatest Living Cinematographer” Deakins in Prisoners absolutely stands as a pinnacle in film visuals of the 21st century, and, moreover, as some of the best of work of Deakins's career, no small feat for the man responsible for both No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, among many, many others.
Throughout the film, dynamite visual symbolism is deployed in brilliant ways; meanwhile, the nuts-and-bolts qualities that constitute great cinematography are of a rarefied sort indeed. Practically every shot is beautifully composed, scene coverage feeds the audience reams of information and emotional gut-punches while maintaining faultless visual coherence, the lighting schemes are cleverly-constructed, precise, and well-sourced, shots are composed with layers upon layers of depth both visual and symbolic, and the camera movements are disciplined and effective.

This is a film stacked to the brim with shots that tell entire mini-narratives simply through their composition, feeding the audience character and plot information through means simultaneously bold and nuanced. Take, for example, this shot from early on in the movie; police detective Loki has just apprehended Alex Jones, a suspect in the kidnappings that comprise the film's inciting incident. Aside from the visual boldness of the composition, a few things stick out. 

Two characters are cramped in a vast sea of negative space, only taking up but a fraction of it. This tells us things; firstly, that Jones is a meek, scared figure who's been literally backed into a corner, and secondly, that Loki is unafraid to get up close with him and engage. The lighting is clinical and bright, the brightest point of which is centred on the table in the middle of the room; Jones, for his part, is making an obvious attempt to slip back into whatever shadow he can. Shadows and darkness are arguably the cheif visual motif of Prisoners. They're where both the mysteries and answers lie, both in terms of plot and characters. Characters with something to hide use them as a refuge, others searching for answers venture into them, and still others are often stranded in the darkness, where they might chance upon a truth about themselves if they don't succumb to it..

Loki, the film's sole effective seeker of truth, is often shown bringing light into the shadows, a trait that is exhibited during his investigation into a sex-offender priest's house. He ventures from the safe, high-key warmth of the priest's main floor to his basement. It's pitch black, of course; after peering into the abyss, Loki takes his first step towards the answers he seeks and turns on a light.

Aside from the fact that this is an ingenious bit of minimalist lighting on a pictorial level, this act serves as one of the film's most open expressions of the 'Loki-brings-light-into-darkness' symbolism that provides a thematic spine for the character throughout the film.

Loki then chooses to plunge deeper into the darkness. He turns on his flashlight, slowly scanning the room for his answers; he does find some, of course, but they're unsettling as hell. 

It's worth nothing that the lighting in this scene appears to be almost entirely supplied by Loki's actual flashlight; there have almost certainly been a few cleverly-hidden bounce surfaces hidden here and there, but it's exciting to see such radical lighting conceits made more possible by the advent of digital filmmaking.

Prisoners, of course, was shot on the Arri Alexa, and Deakins makes stunning use of its capabilities. During the film's climax, Loki, having been shot in the head, must drive one of the kidnapped children to the hospital through a snowy night; the city glows in an almost unreal fashion, illustrating Loki's mental state and furthering the film's symbolism of darkness, or, in this case, the lack thereof providing a sense of safety and security.

Deakins, being the master of simplicity he is, accomplished this by simply raising the ISO of the Alexa and shooting on a very fast lens; a simple, elegant way of utilizing new technology in ways that would have been nearly impossible just a few years ago. 


A variation on the symbolism seen during Loki's venture into the priest's house is presented in the scene in which aforementioned kidnapper Alex Jones is arrested. Loki ventures into an RV, his omnipresent flashlight illuminating the shadows, and drags out Jones. Jones' face is momentarily in darkness.

Loki turns Jones around, and in a fantastic use of digital overexposure, his face goes from completely dark to almost unrecognizably blown-out. There is nothing to Alex Jones. Loki's illumination has exposed only that he is a blank of a man; there is nothing to be found in him but a frightened, confused deer in the headlights.

Jones is later referred to as having the 'mind of a ten-year-old'; the brilliance of the lighting design of this scene is such that we the audience already know this fact the minute we see his face.

Later on in the film, Keller Dover, whose daughter has been kidnapped, traps Jones in what must be, in the universe of Prisoners, a most frightening place to be: utter darkness, the only source of light being a tube connecting him directly to the all-too-friendly voice of Dover himself, pleading for him to fess up and tell him the whereabouts of his children. Jones, for his part, is lost in a sea of blackness, trapped in a space tiny yet made infinitely vast and unknowable by virtue of the sheer darkness that was once his home but now serves as his prison.

Dover subsequently finds himself imprisoned* in a black void of his own. Against his will, he is thrust into the darkness and forced to confront things within himself; with his tiny pen-light** he scans the walls of the pit he's been trapped in only to come across his daughter's whistle. Faced with both the possible loss of his daughter and the bitter irony over the fact that that he's sold his soul for no reward at all, he breaks down, the darkness that all but envelops him.

*Notice how most of the imprisonments in a movie entitled Prisoners trap characters in voids of darkness? Hmm? **Deakins, of course, somehow crafts incredible compositions lit only by a tiny LED flashlight. Seriously, fuck that guy.


The film's last scene features Loki at the scene of the crime one last time. Dover is still missing without a trace. After an exchange with a member of the forensics team, The enormous worklights are turned off one by one. Only the dim lights from the house illuminate the scene. Loki turns to the darkness of the forest and contemplates it for a moment; the car that - unbeknownst to him but not the audience - hides Dover is framed in the distance.
Resigned and just about to give up, Loki hears a whistle from the darkness. At first, he doesn't believe his own ears and turns away. He hears it again. Once again, Loki, the only character in the entire film willing to go out into the darkness looking for answers, has found his answers in it.

Symbolism aside, the actual lighting scheme used during this scene is something to behold. Early on in the scene, the worklights provide side-light to an exchange between Loki and a Forensics worker. Then, when the plot dictates Loki turn around and face the direction of the lights due to the previously-established location of the car, the ensuing issue of preventing Loki from being front-lit in a way that would break from the established mood of the scene is solved by turning off the diegetic worklights. These almost primitively simple solutions to seemingly difficult lighting and blocking issues are typical of Deakins' work.

This simplicity extends to the way Deakins establishes layers of depth within the scene through light. Instead of using an unmotivated backlight source as would be dictated by a more traditional lighting scheme to add depth to a scene via contrasting layers, Deakins opts for the opposite approach in this scene (and throughout Prisoners as a whole) by letting part of Loki's head (and sometimes his whole body!) fall into shadow and lighting the background to preserve the outline of his head, thus adding depth. Look at the last shot of the scene below; only half of Loki's head is lit, yet both the left and right side of his face are well-defined thanks to a carefully-lit background that appears to be lit from the same house as Loki. Craziness!

Prisoners is filled with scenes like these, throughout all of which Deakins and Villeneuve balance pictorial beauty, traditional notions of compositional depth and spatial continuity, elegantly simplistic, well-motivated, stunningly affecting lighting setups, and technical bravado with layers upon layers of dense symbolism. Sure, it's technically flawless, but technical prowess does not a masterpiece of cinematography make; the artists behind Prisoners achieve great things with tools as simple as flashlights and bounce boards not because they're technically accomplished, but because they know why they make the decisions they do and are fantastically good at carrying those decisions out in interesting, novel, and nuanced ways.

No doubt all of this will make it all the more painful when Roger Deakins fails to win his twelfth Academy Award for Cinematography this year.

Oh, and I haven't even gotten into the film's use of dirty windows as a motif symbolizing both an obscuring of the truth and as literal walls of prisons. I mean, look at these! 

Shit be crazy.



sokalsondha sondha said...

Led Flashlight has made large strides in progress from a simple bright long lasting Led Flashlight to solar rechargeable flashlights. Traditional flashlights used alkaline batteries, their lights were not meant to be used for long periods of time, and the lights were very dim.

Post a Comment