Prisoners, The Call and the third act problem with modern thrillers

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in bleak thriller Prisoners
Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in bleak thriller Prisoners


Currently blasting a trail of nihilism through UK cinemas is the bleak thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman as a hothead whose daughter is kidnapped and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective tasked with finding her.

I really enjoyed the film, but had an enormous issue with its disappointing third act. This mirrored a similar problem I had when watching Halle Berry’s 911 nail-biter The Call a few weeks ago. It seems that modern Hollywood thrillers just can’t get that ending right.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Prisoners, The Call and ITV drama Broadchurch.

It’s mystifying to me how a thriller film can expend so much effort getting its setup perfect, only to squander all of that with a lacklustre ending. The hard part is already done, but films seem to be in a rush to tie up any loose ends and provide a satisfying conclusion that will leave audiences completely sated, rather than pondering interesting questions left unanswered.

Prisoners is a prime example. It spends its first 90 minutes crafting a dark, foreboding thriller with interesting moral questions about torture, utilising world class performance from Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Then, the final act reduces itself to running around pointing guns at people.

The Call is very similar, going from tense phone call scenes to an ending that felt like it was trying to be the seventh Saw sequel that no-one wants.

It’s a very strange phenomenon that comes from a root problem that should be blindingly obvious. Audiences love a whodunnit and they love for the villain to get a hefty dose of comeuppance at the end. That’s why the sterile US remake of French/Danish shocker The Vanishing had a new, happy ending tacked onto it.

In the late 80s original, the protagonist is buried alive in one of the creepiest, most powerful endings in the history of horror cinema. Hollywood decided this was too bleak for the mainstream and decided to bop the central villain on the head with a shovel. Mark Kermode memorably shot the film down, with the simple putdown: ”the original was about the banality of evil, but the remake became about the evil of banality.”

Jeff Bridges in the 1993 US remake of The Vanishing
Jeff Bridges in the 1993 US remake of The Vanishing


The Vanishing is a great case study for the new desire for thrillers to have neat endings where the villain gets what’s coming to them.

As well as that, modern thriller audiences don’t just want to consume crime. They want to be a part of it. ITV’s hugely popular crime series Broadchurch culminated in one of the most disappointing reveals of all-time as Joe Miller was revealed as Danny Latimer’s killer. In their great review of the final episode, Den of Geek summed it up. The problem was us.

If we’re feeling let-down, and I’m sure some are, we partly have ourselves to blame for wanting something cleverer. Over the past eight weeks, we’ve turned Broadchurch into something it wasn’t. Think back to episode one, and Beth Latimer being dragged screaming from the beach where her son’s body lay. I was too busy swallowing my heart down from my mouth to place bets or start hashtags. It didn’t feel like a game back then.

As the weeks passed though, the roulette wheel of suspects began to click, skeletons came tumbling out of closets (silent, slow-motion Broadchurch-style skeletons), and we began to join in, as if Chibnall’s story was a choose-your-own-adventure instead of an emotional drama. It’s the town’s new slogan, Broadchurch: come for the pathos, stay for the whodunit.

Examples like this just prove that it isn’t thrillers that have a problem: it’s audiences. Audiences want their film and TV thrillers to be the same as the pulp crime novels that they can pick up for a couple of quid in any airport. As a result, no loose ends are left behind and everything ties up into a neat little bow.

Ambiguity isn’t something that modern thriller audiences like and so box office conscious film studios don’t want to take risks. Even something like Prisoners that seems initially artsy unfortunately feels the need to tread familiar ground in the final act.

It’s not a problem that’s going to solve itself and, unless audiences stop treating thrillers like their own personal puzzles, weak third act syndrome is going to remain a huge problem with the genre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.