In director Denis Villeneuve’s suspense thriller Prisoners, everyone is guilty of something. When two little girls go missing on Thanksgiving, a frantic search turns up a suspect whose RV was seen parked in the middle class neighborhood. Taken into custody only to be released without being charged, it sets in motion a kidnapping film that recalls Kurosawa’s High and Low, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but as pertinent as headlines about Cleveland captives or Amber Alert abductees.
As time virtually stands still, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) feels the weight of failure burden his every waking moment. Vulnerable and at the mercy of law enforcement, both the Birches (played by Virla Davis and Terence Howard) and the Dovers (Maria Bello is Grace, Keller’s wife) are overwhelmed by grief, anxiety and a barrage of questions from the lead investigator, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
The jigsaw puzzle is laid out before us to solve, and like the characters in the movie there are variables that change our perceptions as the film progresses. But the film begs the question: what would you do if it were someone you loved in jeopardy?
Would you pray? Take matters into your own hands? Capitulate in depression? Keller relies on his survivalist skills, pushing the limits of what a concerned individual is expected to do, which usually amounts to patience and standing on the sidelines waiting for police to prioritize their cases.
Along the way, the mystery of the missing daughters evolves into alternative suspects but Keller has his mind already made up as to the guilty party and his motivation shifts to breaking his suspect’s strong silence to find the girls – alive!
Prisoners, like Eastwood’s The Changeling from 2008, leaves the viewer with that uneasy feeling that something doesn’t quite add up. There are key shreds of evidence being overlooked by both the cops on screen and those of us in attendance. It is meant to put everyone off guard, and does so!
It’s a movie as much about the prisons of families as it is about keeping hidden children from the authorities. Both families with missing girls have other children. The suspects have families that are just as concerned with how their loved ones are treated. Gyllenhaal’s Loki has a fraternal order of fellow police in his family.
Even the casting plays to our disadvantage. Gyllenhaal is basically portraying Robert Graysmith with more pull and clout as a cop. Jackman bears no claws but is as relentless as we’ve come to expect him as Wolverine, or as a father figure in Real Steel. So naturally we are comfortable with their roles until there’s a reversal of expectations, especially where Jackman is concerned.
Remember the original black & white Night of the Living Dead? Possibly the most disturbing scene in that entire movie is that the father figure is a white bigot who keeps telling the “prisoners” holed up in the farm house to retreat to the basement. “We’ll all be safer in the basement!” And he’s hated and ridiculed, only once things fall apart where does the lone survivor take refuge? In the basement!
In a crisis, it’s basic math: one plus one equals two no matter how much you cry about it! When human life is at stake, it’s the same principle; there are no gray areas, a thing is what it is! It’s always amazed me how those who oppose the death penalty try to claim it’s unfairly used against a person though after a lengthy twenty-year appeals process not one jury comprised of racially balanced jurors has challenged the fairness of their decision. Or how we are told that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, which is ludicrous. It’s not a deterrent only if it’s just carried out occasionally! People don’t want to accept that one plus one equals two! Keller Dover is well aware of this fact too.
Some people call it revenge. Still others say that the death penalty is inhumane and torture when given to a person who has raped and murdered two kids after eating their severed limbs. I call it just deserts!
Prisoners may make you think twice that one plus one adds up.