Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terence Howard) play two friends. Their families get together on Thanksgiving day then their daughters go missing. A suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Deno) is found in a camper van that was suspiciously parked near their house. Alex is an adult with the mind of a ten year old, he lives with his ‘Aunt’. On being released by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Alex says something to Keller who becomes convinced by Alex’s guilt so he kidnaps and tortures him. There are other suspects, a Catholic priest who has a corpse in his cellar and a creepy young guy who has an obsession with mazes and snakes. Loki is under pressure to find the girls.
Prisoners is a well paced and exiting film. It is about the abduction of two children and the terrifying effect this has on the parents as they become unhinged. Before the abduction they are solid middle class America, after the crime they degenerate into sadistic vigilantism. This could be seen as a parable about terrorism and how our reactions to it can justify behaviour which is often worse than the criminality it intends to remedy. This reminds me of the Danish film The Hunt which focuses on the pathological retribution meted out to the suspected child molester. It’s easy to lose nuance here and descend into the simplicities of junior school level psychology but unfortunately we have all seen how a simple mob mentality can effect cultural relations. The chief suspect is treated to brutality which seems even worse than that repeatedly dished out at Guantanamo. Gyllenhaal plays the clever and persistent cop very well, he did that in pursuit of a serial killer in Zodiac. He is not alone in using brutality on suspects, his twitchy eyed perfectionism factoring into a vindictive obsession with results, which mirrors Keller’s treatment of Alex. We first see Keller encouraging his son to kill a deer as he expresses pseudo-Emersonian values of self reliance and scepticism about human goodness. He is like Harrison Ford’s character in The Mosquito Coast. His arguments for his hokey philosophy seem too glib and capable of rationalization for unsavoury behaviour. His cellar is stocked with shopping goods, he is prepared for the apocalypse. The opening Thanksgiving scene is reminiscent of the cozy domesticity at the beginning of The Purge before that degenerated into civilizational breakdown. The irony about Keller’s treatment of Alex is that he tortures someone who is mentally ill, and so effectively a child, which of course is precisely what the child-abducting criminal is doing. Films like this interestingly expose our obscene hypocrisy in double standards, we are naturally outraged at the abduction and harm done to children (especially when they are white and affluent) but seem indifferent to our weapon manufacturers exporting death to brown skinned children in poorer countries – or do we think the bombs will spare them? Do we feel a similar outrage at their fate? Prisoners of course refers to the confinement of suspects and the mental prisms that the film’s characters so evidently live in. Gripping!!!