Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
The compelling, morally complex mystery film Prisoners tells a story of child abduction in suburban Pennsylvania. Two families, the Kellers and the Birchs, come together for Thanksgiving lunch and are enjoying a lovely day until they realise that both of their youngest daughters are missing. When their search proves fruitless, the abrasive Detective Loki, a specialist in finding missing persons, is put on the case. However, the kidnapped girls are not the only prisoners the film’s title alludes to. While Detective Loki continues his investigation, Dover Keller takes things into his own hands. In his desperation he abducts an intellectually challenged man who he believes was involved in his daughter’s abduction and knows her whereabouts, and sets about trying to persuade him to speak by any means necessary. It is at this point that Prisoners ventures beyond the realms of a standard abduction mystery movie and becomes a statement on America in the post-9/11, war-on-terror era.
As America continued its search for Osama bin Laden in the latter part of last decade, details started to leak about the extreme persuasion tactics being employed at Abu Ghraib (tactics confronted on screen last year in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and American society was struck with a moral question. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it will save lives? In Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski confront that same question but put it on a smaller scale, personalising it. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it can save your daughter’s life?
It is this central moral question that makes Prisoners so painful and so compelling. Simultaneously we want Keller to stop because he might be wrong, but we want him to keep going because he might be right. What is the worse scenario in his mind: that he be wrong and as a result has tortured an innocent man, or that he be right and miss possibly the only opportunity to save his daughter’s life? As such Keller is at the same time the protagonist of the film and one of its chief antagonists. As we struggle to settle on our moral response to the actions being depicted, we are presented with another possible response by Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, who upon discovering what Keller is doing tells her husband, “We’re not going to help Keller, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” Her reaction appears to be Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s indictment of an American administration and society that would turn a blind eye to things it could not stomach so long as the ends justified the means.
The first Hollywood film from French-Canadian director Villeneuve, Prisoners is a well-structured and executed mystery with strong performances from its principal cast, a number of whom are playing against their usual character types. For a savvy audience that is programmed to expect plot twists, Prisoners still manages to surprise you. There are some moments at which you feel like plot and character elements are missing –for example Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is quite an interesting character in terms of his mannerisms and presentation and you expect a backstory that is never forthcoming to explain why he is the way he is – but the film is none the less a gripping, intense mystery.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean