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  • Composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson
  • WaterTower Music / 2013 / 55m

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is an action movie in which Hugh Jackman plays a man forced to take matters into his own hands when he is unsatisfied with the police response (led by Jake Gyllenhaal) to his daughter and her friend going missing.  It’s a well-covered topic already, but the film has garnered very strong advance reviews.  The film’s score is a huge surprise.  It’s by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, working on by far his highest-profile assignment to date; but that’s not the surprise.  The music, by design, plays entirely contrarily to expectations, contrasting with and in doing so attempting to heighten the tense action.  The music is generally low-key, slow moving and at times one might even say uneventful, yet somehow it achieves its aim – it is incredibly tense.

The orchestra of strings and winds is joined occasionally by subtle keyboards and by a cristal bachet (similar to a glass harmonica) and ondes martenot (though this is not even vaguely the ondes sound of Elmer Bernstein).  The result is hypnotic – it’s hard to explain exactly why, but somehow the composer has written music that envelops the listener, draws him in, won’t let go.  A very simple descending theme dominates the entire score – lyrical, beautiful in some ways, but so slow moving – yet always seeming to flow by, calmly carrying the listener along.  Just occasionally Jóhannsson will introduce a new texture – the cello solo that appears from nowhere in “Escape”, later joined by a distant vocal – and there’s a jolt to the senses, a sudden tension while trying to process what’s happened.  It’s very cleverly done, very impressive – the album requires patience, certainly, and then it does offer rewards.  I can’t bring myself to love it, exactly, but it’s very nice to hear such a radical approach to a film like this, something entirely different from what might be expected.

Rating: *** | |

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  1. Mikal (Reply) on Tuesday 24 September, 2013 at 20:53

    Cristal bachet, eh? I thought it was a synthetic organ, or something. 😛 Effective, chilling score.

  2. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Thursday 3 October, 2013 at 19:37

    from the trailers/previews I’ve seen on TV about a dozen times now, this sort of looks like the only genuine attempt at a serious drama that might actually be… serious and moving. Gyllenhaal and Jackman (*cough*Darko(ya it’d old, still..)*cough*theFountain*COuGh*)r both studs when in their element. other good cast too. I SHALL SEE?#$!

  3. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Thursday 3 October, 2013 at 19:54

    what a stupid comment. what I meant was this seems like one of the only sincere ‘drama’s’ i’ve seen previewed on that cesspool called digital cable in like a long time. year? dunno. ZODDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD%!#

  4. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Saturday 16 November, 2013 at 13:12

    I eventually saw this movie…being motivated to do so, more by your review James than by the subject matter> the kidnapping and sexual assault of young kids making news-healines too often [especially in South Africa]. Regretably the score (as heard in the movie) consisted of an elongated bass sampler & an occasional, emotive musical phrase… nothing else. I was so convinced that the digital audio-system was dysfunctional that I complained to management about it. Next day they phoned to assure me that all speakers in the hi-tech cinema were operating optimally. If that were the truth, then I have to presume that Jóhannsson’s music was mixed at such a low level so as to function subliminally. I wasn’t aware of themes for Hugh Jackman as the snarling, vicious father of the kidnapped child- nor for the young suspect he, in turn kidnaps, and brutally tortures. Jake Gyllenhaal’s eye- twitching, laid-back detective was also not to benefit from musical support. The camera often inexplicably focused on Gyllenhaal’s hands and to a massive gold finger-ring engraved with the (Masonic) symbol of the ancient Egyptian deity, Ptah… I doubt a theme would have made able to make this directorial reasoning clear. Jason, you indicated that you might view the film on cable TV > was the score more noticeable? I haven’t been able to track down samples on the CD to help me make up my mind about purchasing the score.