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Prisoners

September 20, 2013
Prisoners

As the first Hollywood film from Denis Villeneuve, director of Incendies, you have to go into Prisoners expecting some pretty out-there material. And for a mainstream audience this is probably one of the more psychologically complex thrillers around. Still, when you stack it up against the likes of Silence of the Lambs it falls well short. Nothing less than a solid thriller, it’s also not really anything more.

It’s Thanksgiving, and the Dover family is visiting the Birches in their small Pennsylvania town. Their two little girls run back to the Dovers for something, but when they’re still gone hours later, the families start to worry. They remember the girls playing on an old RV, which isn’t where it was parked before, and they call the police.

A similar RV is seen near the rest stop where Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is eating a lonely dinner, so he gets the call. With some uniformed officers, he drags out Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who’s mentally about ten and incapable of kidnapping and disappearing two little girls without a trace. He lives a quiet life with his aunt (Melissa Leo), and with no real evidence against him the police have to let him go.

This is not enough for Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Not only is his daughter missing, his wife Grace (Maria Bello) is almost catatonically depressed over it, and he’s certain that this kid knows something. Keller kidnaps Alex and locks him in an old abandoned apartment house, intent to “hurt him until he talks”. He gets help from Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), who doesn’t seem to approve, but goes along because he doesn’t have the willpower to do anything else.

Meanwhile, Loki becomes obsessed with the case, and tracking down the real kidnapper with little more to go on than a mysterious figure (David Dastmalchian) running away from a candlelight vigil held for the girls.

On some level, Prisoners is an effort to explore a spectrum of different reactions to torture, though it never quite engages with the validity of torture itself. Keller is certain that he’s right and that this justifies any actions, no matter how inhumane. Franklin doesn’t agree, but has no better answers and is too distraught himself to really argue. Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) also disagrees and wants to part of Alex’s torture, but she wants the results and so she closes her eyes to it. And Grace is simply oblivious to everything around her, so lost in her grief.

In a way — unintentionally, I hope — the film also explores one more reaction: the clusters in the audience that giggle throughout the torture scenes, and guffaw whenever Dano shrieks in agony. I really don’t want to believe that I’m sitting in a room filled with sadists, but it can be a hard idea to escape. Realistically, it’s probably that many people have no real capacity for any emotional reaction besides nervous laughter.

I’ve noticed the same effect in a number of other films during emotionally intense scenes. Somewhere along the line, feeling things strongly has become so reviled that many people are uncomfortable with it; they can only laugh to deflect it away rather than reaching for any sense of empathy. It’s just a shame that this development says a lot more about the state of our society than the movie itself does.

Worth It: yeah.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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