Hell is Depending on Other People
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… if you like your thrillers served smart and sensitive, with a rich blend of external and internal conflict and a dash of ethical dilemma for spice.
Avoid it… if you find thrillers in general are not your cup of tea, or if you would be overly disturbed by a film where much of the narrative involves children in danger.
For a parent, only a few things could be more terrible than knowing that their child is in danger, especially if there’s nothing they can do about it. Children are in danger for much of the duration of Prisoners (2013), but it is the protector and provider made helpless that is the focus of the narrative. How does a need to protect drive a person to action, and how might an inability to satisfy that need bring to surface the hidden darkness in one’s soul?
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a strong man, religious in that sort of way where he believes that God will provide for him, but he’d rather be ready to provide for himself, just in case. He’s a survivalist, prepared for everything. His wife, Grace (Maria Bello), depends on him as a source of strength and security.
But on a get-together with family friends (Franklin and Nancy Birch, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), their two young daughters go off for a walk in the neighborhood and fail to return. Anxiety turns to fear with the report that a strange RV had been parked in the neighborhood during the time of their disappearance.
The police are notified and it falls to the up-and-coming Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to head the investigation.
Loki has never failed to solve a case, though whether this is due more to skill or inexperience is up to debate – it’s easy to have a perfect record when that record is a short one.
What is discovered in the course of the investigation, I will not say. It’s best to go into films like this without much clue as to where they might lead. But I will say that Keller Dover is not satisfied with having someone other than himself in charge of seeing to his daughter’s well-being. He begins his own investigation, and it is in the intersection of the two where much of the action takes place.
For most of its duration, Prisoners plays as a drama as well as a thriller. The effect that the kidnapping has on the lives of both families is thoroughly explored. Themes of faith, dependence, hope, and damnation weave a strong line through the narrative. The characters are, for the most part, treated as human beings with motivations of their own, rather than simply tools of the plot.
The film seems to take an almost sadistic joy in peeling away the cushions of comfort from its characters, placing them in difficult situations in order to reveal hidden aspects that are difficult to see.
If there were any complaints about the film Prisoners, it would be that it seems to lose momentum of its narrative in its third act; as the film wheels its way to its conclusion, the fascinating character focus and ethical dilemmas make way for the mechanical working of the gears of the plot.
The ending, when it finally arrives, is perhaps too neat and tidy, wrapping everything together in a well-tied package.
Prisoners, is well-made, smart and extremely watchable, but in leaving its most interesting threads before their natural conclusion, it falls short of greatness.
But perhaps I’m too ready to complain.
Prisoners may lose some of its depth in its final act, but most films of its type would never achieve those levels of depth to begin with.
In a Hollywood increasingly dominated by superheroes, both in name and otherwise (are Liam Neeson in Taken or Bruce Willis in Die Hard really anything other than supermen without the suits?), Prisoners manages to deal with human characters with human flaws, struggling against impossible challenges in the best way that they know how. It is their vulnerability that is worth watching, and how they either fall victim to it or triumph in spite of it. It’s hard to be interested in a character’s gaze into the abyss if they can simply fly out of it; in Prisoners, the abyss is deep indeed.