by Aaron Lewis
Unlike many crime drama thrillers, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners immediately throws its burdens onto the audience members’ shoulders. Its 153-minute running time is unyielding in its visceral nature and brutality; it is not your date-night-popcorn movie for the casual moviegoer.
It is a cold, dreary, wet Thanksgiving Day in Pennsylvania where Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) share a Thanksgiving meal with their family friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). Their story is not uncommon to ours except in one tragic aspect; they eat, they watch football on TV, their daughters go out to play—their daughters do not come back. What unfolds from here is very much a police procedural and investigation of the girls' disappearance, but unique in that we observe how each character is a prisoner to their fear, grief and certainty.
When the prime suspect of the kidnapping, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is released upon lack of evidence, a brooding and reserved detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) remains committed to the case. We follow detective Loki’s efforts to solve this case; after all, “he’s never failed to solve a case before.” The story also focuses in on Keller Dover’s relentless determinism to find his daughter. Here, the movie easily could collapse under the strain of being pulled in different directions, but Villeneuve keeps it balanced, and reveals just enough clues at the right time to keep the audience rolling with the punches.
Dover undergoes a degenerative transformation within a matter of days, which begs the question: Does tragic stress reveal the inhumane, unforgiving nature within the human heart that is so easily hidden? Dover is the fierce some protector, and doomsday prep-er who could have never been prepared for a tragedy as this. Violent vigilantism captures him as he kidnaps and tortures Alex Jones, trying to extract information leading him to his daughter. Is he just in doing this? Can you blame him? We shake our heads with moral disapproval, but we do not know what limits we would break when we are prisoners to this kind of grief.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography perfectly displays the light and shadow, the blurred lines and streaks of moral ambiguity that Prisoners asks the audience to consider. The story does not end with a violent vigilante’s vindication of his actions. To say any more would spoil the surprise twists and turns as the audience goes through the maze of trying to solve this case.
Leaving the theater, my body had taken a physical toll. I felt beaten and bruised like Dover’s torture victim; the audience members become prisoners. Great movies do this. In Memento, we ourselves experience memory loss watching the movie. In The Master, we are essentially sitting through a processing session. Prisoners takes you captive and begs you to consider and wrestle with its moral implications.
There is a line near the end that is said to Dover: “Taking children is waging war against God because it turns men into demons like you.” Prisoners works as a police procedural and great mystery thriller, but it is not merely about that. It is about how men can do unspeakable things because of our certainty—blinding ourselves from any doubt. We can become consumed by our determinism, shoving out those closest to us. We’re weak, yet we push others away. We’re prisoners of sin, longing for redemption from a sick, sick world. Without forgiveness we are turned into animals. Our humanity and life is frail and totally dependent on the mercy of others.