The new Oscar-bait thriller Prisoners is very well done for the most part, earning enough points with its tightly crafted, nuanced first half to buy its way through a final act that quickly fills up with genre short cuts and over-cooked “this is the work of a crazy person!” tomfoolery. It has plenty of nice, big, “Lookit me, Academy!” performances from some very good actors.
If you like films that at least play at appealing to the head as much as twisting the gut, you should probably go see it–if for no other reason than to cleanse your Cineplex palette of the Summer’s sugar-rush and prepare yourself for the Fall’s more subtle flavors.
But those of you who have not yet seen Prisoners and are thinking about doing so probably have another question: Is it too dark, too grim, too terrifyingly hopeless for me? After all, the film’s premise is that one Thanksgiving Day in cold and rainy Pennsylvania, two young girls go missing after dinner.
Their parents (played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Terrance Howard and Viola Davis—that’s three Oscar nominees right there, with more to come!) are naturally besides themselves with red-eyed, frantic worry. Enter the always-terrific Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, an enigmatic but dedicated sleuth. (He has tattoos and a murky past, but just as with his similar role in David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, he also has those Jake Gyllenhaal big eyes and crooked smile that leave his motives and abilities slightly in question.)
Loki and the police quickly find a possible suspect, the developmentally arrested Alex (Paul Dano turning his oily, squirmy Paul Dano-ness up to 11), but despite quite a bit of circumstantial evidence and Alex’s general tic-y weirdness, there’s not enough to charge and hold him. So upon his release, Jackman’s Keller Dover—a man’s man survivalist and hunter-protector—takes matters—and Alex—into his own hands, kidnapping and torturing the terrified young man to find out what Keller knows Alex must know about the missing girls.
Sounds like a jolly good time at out at the movie theater, doesn’t it? In fact, it is—Prisoners is the latest example of what we’ll call Feel-Good Feel-Bad movies. Well-scripted (up to a point) by newcomer Aaron Guzikowski, the film is directed with sure-handed nuance and searing emotional intelligence by the French-Canadian (so, like kinda foreign, but still North American!) director Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was a much darker, grimly masterful look into the conflicted, paradoxical nature of suffering, hatred, and human connection.
When it comes to feeling good about feeling bad, horror-movie fans are plenty familiar with this sort of emotional slight of hand, but a mainstream film like Prisoners sells itself as horror for “grown ups.” There are no cheap shocks, no baroque gore or phantasmagoric beings—instead it plays off deeper fears of child abduction and parental (and legal) impotence in the face of the unthinkable. Most slasher horror films scare younger people with threats to the things they hold most dear: their young, healthy bodies. Prisoners goes after what scares parents the most: something happening to their kids.
But to get at how Prisoners really works with a mass-appeal audience, we have to drop a pretty big spoiler: not the “who” in this tensely ratcheted whodunit, but an important reveal about what is—or isn’t—done. So if you haven’t seen the film yet and intend to, and (understandably) feel your experience will be compromised by knowing what ultimately happens to the missing little girls, now is the time to skedaddle.
I have a friend who can’t stand to watch films in which pets are in peril unless she knows they’ll eventually emerged unharmed.
I’m sure the same is true of many parents going to see Prisoners—not many causal American movie-goers really want to spend two and a half hours getting twisted up and tortured (an indelicate choice of words?) by a tense thriller only to find out the fictional kids are dead. I can guarantee that if that had been the case in Prisoners, it would not be one-tenth as awards-buzzed-about, word-of-mouthed over, and well-attended at the box office. American audiences don’t have time for that kind of Euro-bleak downer—just ask Lars Von Trier.
So yes, the girls survive their abduction. And that right there is what makes all the praise for and success of and (wildly premature) Oscar talk about Prisoners so interesting. Because it is a Feel-Good Feel-Bad movie—or maybe a Feel-Bad Feel-Good one. It takes the viewers—clutching at their Facebook photos of their own children—on a white-knuckled spooky ride into the Heart of Parental Darkness, but one where Kurtz lives at the end. Or rather the Belgium Congo does… or the Congolese… I’m not sure—this metaphor got away from me…
No one, certainly not me, wants to see children suffer, or really see films about children suffering, and so a film like Prisoners, with its lofty commercial and awards ambitions, cannot afford to hold up a mirror to our sometimes dark, disturbing world without ushering the viewer back out into the light.
And to do that, by its third act it has to set aside the thorny, murky issues it raised in its first half and fall back on whodunit genre plot tropes that are in their own way comforting and reassuring to the audience. After an hour and a half of low-key, quietly drawn atmosphere and shapeless dread, the last hour of Prisoners trots out a few foot chases and car races and “super weirdo” fetish trappings (strewn around a suspect’s “lair”), as well as a whole load of wildly contrived plot devices.
But from one perspective, these aren’t cinematic weaknesses: what feels increasingly cheap and silly to viewers who appreciated the first half’s more restrained set up is welcomed by other viewers—not only because the overt genre gestures help the horrific kidnapping story get resolved in a “most all is right in the world again” way, but because they help guide Prisoners back toward the realm of “entertainment,” as opposed to raw, gut-wrenching emotional art.
One of the ways the film does that is to slowly transition from a truly unsettling examination of the unknowable, often hauntingly banal nature of even the most heinous crimes and begin to decorate itself with the usual baroque, Silence-of-the-Lambs and Seven-style lurid flourishes. After all, when we talk about “the nature of evil,” eventually we want that “nature” not to be some sad, pathetic, nondescript loser like Ariel Castro who’s broken by all-too-mundane human failings, weaknesses, and mental illness, but rather a wildly florid (and yes, fascinating, even entertaining) “movie psycho weirdo,” amped up with mysterious ritualistic trappings like puzzle mazes, dressed-up store mannequins, and yes, even live snakes.
Along the way, Prisoners raises legitimate, complex questions about torture and morality, especially in the case of the classic Ticking Time Bomb. Keller tortures Alex; no ifs and or buts about it. And he tortures him in a way that is very purposefully intended to remind us of CIA rendition “black sites,” except the ticking bomb is his and his friends’ daughters’ lives, not an impending terrorist attack.
Jackman does a fine job with Keller, playing him as a stoic-but-caring family man, but one whose manly, God-fearing, Springsteen-loving belief in his role as the Provider and Protector has gotten a little cross-fueled by a darker, hunter-survivalist paranoia rooted in his own childhood trauma. “Be ready” Keller advises his older son, and sure enough, his basement is straight out of Doomsday Preppers. The problem with preparing for disaster is that sooner or later you secretly start hoping for one so all your preparations weren’t in vain; that they were the work of a hero, not a crazy person.
Prisoners circles back again and again to Christian religion in multiple guises (a crucifix necklace here, a skeevy priest there), but for the most part faith is presented not as a way of coping with pain, but as justification for bringing it. (It’s also presented as a conduit for homicidal insanity, but everyone understands that the dark, twisted religious motivations of the film’s eventual Big Bad Person are invalid, while Keller’s salt-of-the-earth faith gives him righteous strength… to chain another human being up and beat his face to a pulp and then shower him with scalding water).
So when we reluctantly watch this “good family man” declare his prisoner “no longer human,” we’re meant to see a man for whom religion has become not a salve in the face of despair, but rather an Old-Testament rationalization for demonic brutality. (Keller loves to recite “The Lord’s Prayer,” but eventually can’t quite spit out the “forgive them their trespasses” part.)
Most of all, we’re watching the justification lines of torture blur from “we must do this horrible thing to get the information we need to save lives” into “even if this achieves nothing, it feels good as an outlet for our impotent rage.”
Naturally this begs the question about torture: Did Keller’s imprisonment and torture of Alex save the girls? Here Villeneuve and Guzikowski coyly serve up a “Yes and No” non-answer, though it’s likely most audience members will come away leaning toward the side that best fits their preconceived notions about torture. Keller gets no useful information from torturing Alex, but it can be argued that the circumstances and events that lead to the rescue of the girls in the end would not have fallen into place without the fallout from what Keller did to his captive. Or maybe they would have.
But those murky moral issues that are conveniently wiped away by joy and relief once the kids are found, just as any questions about the morality of using torture in the War on Terror were cinematically cleansed by the rah-rah SEAL Team action at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. The kids are safe, that’s an undeniable good, so who cares how it was done?
Given the painful moral complexities of Villeneuve’s Incendies, it doesn’t seem likely the director initially set out to make such a crowd-pleasing thriller, but the presence of big stars like Jackman and the desire for box office and awards-season success dictated it. Jackman likes to talk about how dark and scary his character is, but the film (and certainly the audience watching it) eventually sweeps Keller’s actions under the rug (quite literally). By the time we reach the film’s impressive, somewhat ambiguous ending, he’s still the Hero Father, not the Demon Torturer.
We see a crime and we want it solved. We like to explore things that upset our universe on scales both large and small, but for the most part we want to see things set (mostly) right at the end, perhaps with a few painful costs. Prisoners neatly takes some of our darkest real-life fears, works them up into a gut-wrenching tableau of paranoia and despair, and then transmutes them into something less real, less threatening.
The film isn’t “hard to watch” as long as you know there’s a (mostly) happy ending at the end of the gripping and thrilling ride. It takes the horrific nightmare of child abduction and, after putting the audience through the wringer a bit, makes that nightmare and all its attendant moral issues if not palatable, at least emotionally and psychologically manageable. And we’re reminded that no matter how many Oscar-nominees are on hand, whatever art-house pedigree the director has, or how serious the subject matter and issues raised, Prisoners ultimately doesn’t explore fear but exploits it, and in doing so becomes entertainment, not art.