Today I am writing about a horror movie.
Or at least, a movie that could be considered to be a horror movie.
It is a movie that, to me, is far more disturbing than any manufactured slasher flick with a masked killer brutally murdering horny teenagers.
It is a movie that is far more intimate, far more personal, and far more terrifying.
The movie is Prisoners, released in 2013 and starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Be warned that there will be spoilers from here on out.
It is a movie that begins with the Lord’s Prayer. It is recited by Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, as he shoots a deer with his teenage son. The next day, Keller, along with his son, wife, and young daughter, go to the house of Franklin and Nancy Birch, their friends and neighbors, for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing the deer meat with them.
Keller is what you might call a God-fearing man, who makes a modest living as a carpenter. He may be a bit strict with his children, but it is clear that he loves them, and that his devotion to his family is absolute. He is also a survivalist, a “Hope for the best, plan for the worst” kind of guy with a basement full of survival gear.
After dinner, as the adults are socializing, the Dovers’ daughter Anna and the Birches’ daughter Joy ask if they can go to back to the Dovers’ house. The adults tell them they can, but later, no one can find the girls.
The police are called, and Detective Loki, played Jake Gyllenhaal, answers the call from dispatch. When we first meet Detective Loki, with his tattooed knuckles and slicked-back hair, he is spending his Thanksgiving by being the only customer at the local diner, where he awkwardly attempts to flirt with the waitress. He soon arrests the driver of an RV the girls had been playing on earlier. He interrogates the driver, Alex Jones, who has the IQ of a ten-year-old, but learns nothing, and no physical evidence is found in the RV.
Since they have no evidence, the police are forced to release Jones. An increasingly desperate Keller, convinced Jones knows the whereabouts of the girls, abducts Jones and takes him to an abandoned apartment building, where he, with Franklin’s reluctant help, tortures Alex for days.
At first he beats Alex, pounding him to such a pulp that his face starts to look like a bruised and rotten piece of fruit. Eventually Alex is beaten so severely that Keller can’t beat him anymore without risking killing him, so Keller uses his carpentry skills to imprison Alex in a shower stall, where he rigs the tap so that the water comes out either scalding or freezing. Throughout all this, Keller and Franklin learn nothing from Alex about the whereabouts of their missing daughters.
While this is going on, Detective Loki continues to pursue multiple leads, and grows increasingly suspicious of Keller, especially once Alex goes missing. Keller and Loki butt heads several times, with Keller’s frustration and desperation boiling over and directed at the man whose job it is to find his missing daughter. Detective Loki, for his part, is doing everything he can, while attempting to deal with mounting pressure and the increasingly desperate family members of the missing girls, all the while knowing that with every moment that passes, the likelihood the missing girls will be found decreases.
These are two men who should get along, but they don’t. You would think that the father of a missing child and the Detective whose job is to find that child would be able to cooperate to some extent, but as this film so convincingly portrays, things are always easier in theory than in execution. People’s personalities and egos get in the way. The law gets in the way. Human nature gets in the way.
This is a film with an atmosphere of dread and menace that mounts for the entire running time. It’s an exercise in sustained tension worthy of David Fincher. It’s reminiscent of Fincher films such as Se7en or Zodiac in the ways it keeps the suspense continuing, which is especially impressive considering the movie’s hefty 2 hour and 33 minute running time.
The acting is tremendous across the board. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the leads do some of the best work of their careers. In my opinion, Jackman was stiffed for an Academy Award nomination, giving a performance that really resonates as a good man pushed to horrible extremes, and becoming a shell of a man as a result. Gyllenhaal is similarly excellent, and Prisoners ranks right up there with Fincher’s Zodiac as some of his best work. His body language is particularly remarkable, and he gives Detective Loki these personality tics (watch the way he blinks, like he’s scrunching up his whole face) that make you wonder just what exactly is going on in this guy’s head.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Maria Bello gives a heartbreaking performance as Keller’s wife Grace, a woman who just comes undone when her daughter goes missing. She has one scene in particular where she just wails helplessly as her husband and son fruitlessly attempt to console her that is just heart-wrenching. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she really makes an impression as a strong woman who just comes unglued when faced with a situation no human being ever wants to be put in. There are some things that human beings just aren’t meant to deal with, and Bello’s performance is a poignant reminder of that.
Also excellent are Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of the other missing girl, who are drawn reluctantly into Keller’s increasingly brutal interrogations of Alex. All of these are characters who are good, decent people, caught between the almost primal need to find their missing children and the lengths they might have to go in order to achieve that, and the basic human impulse to be a good person.
There’s really no denying that Keller’s actions in imprisoning and torturing Alex are morally reprehensible, but the argument could be made that he does it for the right reasons. Ultimately it comes down to the age-old question: do the ends justify the means? My reading of the film’s ending (and of course there are many different ways you could interpret a film like this) is that they do not. Keller tortures a mentally-disabled man who turns out to be just as much of a victim as the kidnapped girls, and you can just feel Keller’s humanity slipping away from him as he asks God to forgive him for his sins.
The title of the film is multi-layered. The most obvious prisoners are Alex and the kidnapped girls, but just about every main character in the movie is a prisoner in some way. The families of the missing girls are prisoners, held captive by the lack of ability to do or think about anything else once their loved ones go missing. Detective Loki is a prisoner, imprisoned by his promise to the distraught parents that he will find their children and his difficulty and frustration in doing so, as well as by a flawed system that cannot provide everything he needs it to.
Prisoners, as you might imagine, is not an easy film to watch, and it is far from perfect. At two and a half hours, it is very long, and there are a few subplots and red herrings along the way to finding the missing girls that, to me, felt a bit extraneous. It’s also maybe a bit heavy-handed: this is a film with a point to make, and it does not do so subtly.
It is not what you would call a fun movie, but it is very good, and it is the kind of movie that is hard to shake after you’ve watched it. It’s not an easy movie to recommend, but as long as you know what you’re getting into it is worth seeing, even if you don’t ever want to see it again once it’s over. I’ve watched the film twice now, and I don’t know if I could manage a third viewing.
It’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but I felt it was appropriate to write about in this season of monsters and ghouls because it is a film that is a disturbing reminder that the worst acts of evil are ones that humans do to each other.