Think of the worst Thanksgiving one could imagine and the new film “Prisoners” (with the circumstances of the plot) would have you beat. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), Grace Dover (Maria Bello) bring their children, Ralph and Anna Dover, over to their friend’s house for a holiday dinner. There are food, laughs and otherwise good times at the home of Nancy and Franklin Birch (played by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard respectively) until a startling revelation is made. Anna Dover (the 6 year old daughter) and Joy Birch (the daughter of Nancy and Franklin) are nowhere to be found. The son, Ralph Dover, recalls walking past a dirty, old camper earlier with the daughters that had been parked on the street and emphatically suggests that there was a man inside watching them.
Police are called, they locate the camper and a man inside. That man, Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano) is mentally challenged with a 10 year old’s IQ. He is not talking to the police at least discussing anything that makes coherent sense. There are no traces of the girl’s in his camper. Effectively, they have completely vanished into thin air.
Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Investigator Loki who is assigned to the case and after releasing Jones for lack of evidence draws the angry criticism of Dover. Dover believes that Jones is guilty and knows where the girls are. Taking matters to the vigilante level, he kidnaps Jones, takes him to an abandoned building and begins torturing him for information. However, Jones still does not talk.
Hence the setup for this gloomy, dark, and sprawling thriller that is crafted with considerable skill by director Denis Villeneuve (who made “Incendies” which I have not seen). The work certainly challenges the typical structure of the revenge/kidnapping thriller which some are calling it. The cinematography by one of the best in the business, Roger Deakins, captures the mood of the subject matter within the neighborhoods of blue collar Pennsylvania.
The strength of the film is that we never know quite what to make of the characters. Protagonists and antagonists, for many of the characters, is difficult to ascertain. Consider Jackman’s powerhouse performance as Dover: his daughter is kidnapped, he is desperate to get her back, and goes outside of the law in an attempt to attain that goal. His interrogation methods would draw horror from the CIA agents in “Zero Dark Thirty”. He keeps the torture of Jones secret except for letting his neighbor, Birch, in on the proceedings. Howard’s Birch reacts in horror, “This is wrong! This needs to stop” but does not go to the authorities at the urging of his wife because what if the methods end up leading to information about their daughter? What if this is the only way of receiving clues about her possible whereabouts? With the complexity that defines the characters, the Birch’s may have a moral compass but sound no alarms because of the “ends” they justify to themselves. Gyllenhaal’s Loki dives into the investigation of the girl’s disappearance but is he becoming so concerned about Dover’s boiling inferno of rage that he is distracted from the initial purpose of the investigation?
The audience is confronted with the unsettling possibilities. If Dover is wrong about the Jones’ suspicion, he has committed a moral atrocity as a weakened, desperate man with time working against him? However, what if his suspicions are correct? Does the audience still feel that his torturous actions are a moral outrage? Would they do different if they were in his situation? One can see in one personalized microcosm how all of this serves as an unsettling metaphor for our country’s actions (enhanced interrogation techniques) in the war on terror.
About halfway through this movie, I began to predict in my mind how the proceedings would go. Was this to be one of those preachy Hollywood movies against revenge? Nope, I was wrong. To me, the way this story unraveled is not what I expected. There may be a few minor plot holes here and there but when the ending comes, it sure is interesting to see how this film ties together all of the threads.
A religious sub theme is also loosely connected throughout the entire story. Dover prays the Lord’s prayer and cries out to God in anguished prayer for the return of his daughter. A survivalist with a basement full of guns and canned goods, he “prays for the best and prepares for the worst.” At times, this film almost seemed to be making commentary on the nature of faith, more specifically perception versus reality. Even in attempting to offer this grandiose proclamation on the character of Dover, the movie is more complicated than I would have ever thought it to be on this sub theme.
All of that to say, this is a fine film. The metaphor that goes with the title is very appropriate here. The characters in this film are prisoners. Some have had cages imposed upon them against their will. Others have created the nature of their prisons by their own devious choices. The only question is: will any of them find their way out?