“Prisoners” Captures our Moral Complexity

The opening hour or so of Prisoners, a tense and gripping new thriller, touches on our collective nerves so perfectly that it’s almost hard to believe. The subject is vengeance, which is not a new topic in American film but one worthy of revision. Revenge films have been around since 1974 when Death Wish exploded onto the scene, but the concept has taken on new national meaning in the post-9/11 era. Zero Dark Thirty was essentially a revenge movie, equating torture and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden as a necessary but often destructive step in our national healing.

Prisoners offers a better exploration of these themes because its applies them to a smaller, more relatable story, which makes it even more disappointing that it devolves to a somewhat generic potboiler thriller. My reaction to the film was split in two: the impact of its deep emotional exploration of our national trauma is impossible to shake, but its shallow, mystery-novel ending is easy to shrug off.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working-class carpenter whose daughter gets kidnapped, along with the daughter of his neighbor (Terrence Howard). The early scenes in which the parents (Maria Bellow and Viola Davis play the wives) search frantically for their children efficiently set the stakes. Director Denis Villeneuve wisely avoids going for melodrama; the simple reality of that panic, cast against a gray, wet morning, is bad enough to speak to our worst fears.

Soon, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) is on the case, and he immediately finds the primary suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally-disabled man who owns the trailer the girls were last seen playing on. But there is no evidence against Alex, and the police determine that someone of his intelligence would not be capable of such a crime, so they let him go.


Much like in Death Wish, the police have failed and justice lies in the hands of a citizen. Dover swings into action, kidnapping the suspect, holding him in a secluded apartment, and torturing him for information.

Before you cry “spoiler,” let me assure you that I’m not giving too much away here. The plot twists and turns for two and a half hours, doubling back on itself many times, before reaching its disturbing conclusion. The true culprit is easy enough to figure out (an old rule of thumb to look for the character who is otherwise unnecessary applies here), but the shock-driven script and taut direction is so gripping that you’ll only notice the giant plot holes when you’re walking out of the theater. There is a lot of smoke here and quite a few mirrors, but they all do their job: Prisoners is an endlessly compelling film.

And, at least for half of it, it’s also an important one that perfectly encapsulates the moral ambiguities of our time. The film sets things up so that Dover’s actions, while horrible, seem completely justified. He even convinces his deeply skeptical neighbor to be complicit in his crimes by framing the situation in the most simplistic terms: “We hurt him until he talks, or they’re gonna die. That’s the choice.” Most Americans oppose torture as a national policy, but the area gets a bit more gray when confronted with the type of ticking time-bomb scenario Dover finds himself in.


The depiction of torture onscreen is important. The ticking time-bomb scenario rarely happens in real-life, but when they occur in film and television, they lodge in our consciousness and shift our perception of torture. Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 probably did more to normalize torture than any real-life event.

But that’s not how Prisoners plays out. When the second act rolls around, however, and it appears that his bloody and beaten suspect could actually be innocent, we look around and notice that the only villain in the movie is Dover himself. Soon, Loki is no longer looking for the girls but investigating the disappearance of Alex, and he and Dover have become adversaries. It’s a remarkable narrative shift that Villaneuve accomplishes seamlessly, a major accomplishment for a young director. He masterfully keeps the story moving forward, confronting us with the story’s realities, but keeping us just comfortable enough to stay in our seats.

To be sure, Prisoners is an intense and often upsetting film. Given all that it puts us through, it’s natural to want a more conclusive ending, which the film doesn’t provide. Maybe this was intentional; the issues of vengeance and torture are too complex to be neatly wrapped up, but the script still has a couple too many red herrings in its conclusion to be satisfying. I walked out feeling a bit manipulated, which might only be the product of a film that has bitten off more than it can chew.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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