Roger Deakins, eat your heart out.
Prisoners feels like the closest thing to a genuine Alan Moore movie that I’ve ever seen. It may seem cheapening to the work screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski did (stellar work, by the way) to say that, but I mean it as an utmost compliment. While Prisoners will make its way into the world on its strengths as a thriller featuring great performances, unpredictability, and moral ambiguity, there are layers within layers of symbolism, allegory, and inquiry being performed within what appears to be an eccentric, but straightforward kidnapping film. Alan Moore is a touchstone for me because of his penchant for layering symbolism in his narratives, attaching occult elements or bits of weird history into his stories. From Hell, the graphic novel, is what immediately comes to mind as I think back on this film.
I can’t think of a recent mystery thriller more surprising than Prisoners. This will probably be one of the things that leaves the biggest impression on audiences. Because the film takes its time (it’s 153 minutes long) and is very selective about what it shows and tells, it’s very difficult to predict the twists and turns. There’s a flirtation and subsequent abandoning of the conventions of the genre. It starts out feeling more formulaic, only to steadily layer uncertainty even on the level of its structure, which rolls out into the narrative and characterizations.
Prisoners is a very intelligent film. A lot of its merit will be lost on people who go into it only willing to engage with the surface. That said, it’s laudable that the movie works entirely on that surface level. It’s not perfect. There is a bit of bloat here, and there are scenes and moments that are not easily clarified in the context of the story nor its thematic significance. This can be confusing and unsatisfying as some of the lingering questions after the film aren’t the good kind.
It starts off just like any other Thanksgiving.
The film gets off to a grim and foreboding start. We hear Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) delivering the Lord’s Prayer as he and his son shoot a deer. On the way home, Dover explains his life philosophy: pray for the best, prepare for the worst. This philosophy, and the subsidiary elements of Dover’s character, are put to the test when his daughter, along with the daughter of the neighboring Birch family, is kidnapped. It’s a powerhouse, surprising performance. Jackman has rarely gotten to play characters with moral ambiguity, but Keller Dover is at least that. He’d be challenge for any actor, but Jackman carries us through the range of his emotions and decisions with expert sense of tonal balance. One minute, he’s vile and maybe crazy, another he’s a tragic hero, and still another he’s the sympathetic desparate parent the audience hopes to never be.
During Thanksgiving dinner, the girls wander off to play. Earlier, they’d briefly climbed around on a parked, rundown RV. This RV is the immediate, if sketchy, clue for the families as they realize that their kids are gone. Dover is the classic conservative ideal of the American man. He’s devout, prepared, decisive, and above all else morally certain. He believes in good and evil as stark moral realms, without much nuance or ambiguity to speak of. This puts him at odds with Detective Wade Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an allegedly precise caseworker who has solved everything he’s been up against. In small town Pennsylvania, Loki feels like a weird character. It’s not just his ridiculous name, but the occult and religious tattoos and jewelry he wears. Gyllenhaal carries these cartoonish affectations with ease, balancing the character’s eccentric appearance with a restrained performance that gives him an air of mystery and barely-contained menace. Instead of being a cartoon, Loki is a grim figure perfectly suited for a grim adventure. Gyllenhaal’s work complements the unrestrained nature of Jackman’s. The movie puts these two together often, giving us both a clash of personalities as well as a clash of representational ideas and symbols.
There’s a beautiful parallel arc to their emotional states throughout the film, with each one taking turns being calm, calculating, and ultimately consumed with rage.
We spend almost equal amounts of time with both men. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve maintains the theme of clashing opposition by giving the more intimate portrayal to Dover. Loki is always at arm’s reach, from us and probably from himself. As a nice example of the selective approach to the characterization and storytelling, it’s the first scene with both characters that tells us who they are. Dover’s is the aforementioned hunt and conversation with his son. Loki’s is a lonely Thanksgiving dinner in a shitty diner before picking up the call about the kidnapping.
Loki’s facial tic (he blinks, usually when he’s angry or trying to stay calm) tells us how difficult it is for him to maintain his control and professionalism. He’s not a cold robot, though. He has a weirdly affable and antagonistic relationship with his Captain and we do learn a few more details about his back-story (he went to a Christian boys’ home for six years and subsequently has a healthy suspicion and dislike for priests).
The characters mirror each other, as do various actions they take throughout the film. In the end, they are two crusaders using utterly different philosophical approaches to an impossible problem. This is just one of the thematic conflicts in the film. Just one of its layers of meaning.
Death is a disease, Dano!
Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is the mentally stunted driver of the RV. He’s creepy, sure, and the RV was on the scene when the girls were taken. Dover’s son reports this to both families and it’s sketchy intel at best. But everybody acts on it. Dover, his wife (Maria Bello), and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are convinced that Jones knows something. Dover, at least, immediately dumps his rage and despair into a fixation that is teetering over the edge of obsession until it plummets all the way down to something much darker. Loki, meanwhile, goes along with the suspicion (Jones is suspicious) but he does it by the book, which in spite of his appearance and candor at the office, is pretty much how he do.
This is the crux of the moral collision in the film. Dover uses any means necessary, letting the severity of the situation dictate his approach. Loki is more thoughtful, systematic, and ordered. He chases the leads, he does the legwork, and ultimately it is his approach that the film rewards. He’s the statement that Prisoners makes about the very nature of morality. Morality is not the black and white that Dover’s religious and masculine preconceptions generate. Morality is about imposing order on chaos, using the emotion as an impetus and an inspiration. We see this happen even as Loki begins to lose his tight grip on himself. Amidst the outbursts, the tactical mind is still at work in the functional, methodical quest for justice. His instincts are correct, too, and they serve him again and again and lead him, because he tempers them, to the truth without morally compromising himself.
Watching these two act opposite each other is one of the highlights of the film.
While Loki checks Jones out thoroughly, he ends up chasing other leads while Dover’s fixation with Jones continues. Finally, Dover resolves to get at Jones’s secrets using any means necessary, dragging the Birches into it with him. He first kidnaps, then tortures a man who is mentally ten years old. He’s got reason to suspect Jones, which is one of the ways the film keeps us tentatively with him. Franklin Birch is our surrogate in this situation, being unable and unwilling to believe Jones is innocent enough to save him, and even helping Dover at first as his own rage, grief, and fear do his thinking for him.
This thing with Jones is, in the context of the mystery, the setup for several twists and red herrings that ultimately coalesce into something strange, grand, and retroactively coherent. It’s a mystery with twists and reveals that work, ultimately. The way it progresses is not just a matter of being satisfying, though. This film is serving many masters, all of them faithfully, and the way the mystery works is as much about navigating several symbolic and allegorical streams alongside functioning as a competent (it’s more than competent, really) thriller.
Look at Howard’s face. It’s a very subtle, but awesome performance.
The first of these is an exploration of morality. Directly, it’s easy to point to the situation in the film as an allegory of post 9/11 American social mores. The sketchy intel, the fixation on a target, the use of torture to extract information, the complicit and morally compromised overseers and bystanders (the Birches), and the collateral damage. Even the true villains of the film, Holly Jones and her dead husband, are religious fanatics (of a breed).
However, Prisoners is not happy to be yet another veiled criticism of contemporary American culture or morality. For one thing, the film stays with Dover and never abandons him to the audience’s judgment. We’re allowed to turn on him, at least temporarily, but the movie refuses to take a stance. We see Dover ruthless, we see him do real evil, but we also see his hesitation, his grief, his remorse, and we also see something not completely unlike vindication. This is a movie complex enough to show us that Dover’s instincts were correct: Jones is involved, though not responsible. This does not endorse his actions, however. His actions lead him into the real villain’s clutches, both literally and figuratively. He ends up being a tool for the evil he’s trying to expose and fight, but that doesn’t mean the evil isn’t there. Does that sound like a simplistic way to deal with the moral compromises of contemporary American society? It would be a lot easier to vilify Dover wholesale by having Jones be completely uninvolved or to have turned out to be insane (the film does flirt with this possibility, but it’s a red herring). They could also have left us with just Jones and Dover, but Franklin Birch is also in the mix. He’s the audience, and he’s society. He’s the people who let the morally certain men do the unspeakable in a misguided quest for vengeance masquerading as the search for truth or justice.
Loki’s function in this level of the narrative is to provide a representation of due process. Yes, Loki is suspicious and he’s upset and he’s emotionally involved and all of that. Yet, he does the right things. He doesn’t give in to vengeance or extremes, but stays measured and calculated until he finally has the opportunity and moral/legal grounds to mete out his justice. But it’s not so simple as saying Loki’s way is the right way, we can all go home now. The film deals with the downsides of due process with the same attention to complexity with which it deals with Dover’s slide into amorality. The system lets Jones slip through the cracks without extracting the information he has, the system comes across Aunt Holly Jones by accident rather than by consequence of its merits.
But ultimately, I don’t think there’s any problem with the fact that the film does take a stance in favor of one philosophy. It’s not the philosophy it chooses which matters so much as with the respect, complexity, and maturity that it explores the alternatives.
The creepiest house I’ve seen in a while.
Audiences will understandably get the sense that something deeper is going on with the plot of the film. Loki’s name and occult/symbolic tattoos aren’t the only clues. Prisoners works on the level of thriller, morality play, and even as an allegory of post-9/11 moral corruption. The other level it’s operating on is one of religious and occult symbolism.
Does this mean something supernatural is going on? I’d say no. I’d say that the symbolism is serving the more direct, uncompromising social criticism the film is making. This is a film that is heavily anti-Christian, I think, and I believe I can make a case for it.
First off, Loki is the moral hero of the film. He’s named for a Satanic figure in Norse mythology. He’s covered in polytheistic occult symbols, including runes and Greek zodiac symbols. He was raised in a Christian boys home, is presumably not a Christian. He does have a cross tattooed on his hand, but it’s on the left hand. It also fades as the film draws to a close.
The film plays it close to the edge with Holly. There are early hints that she’s got some secrets, but she eventually confesses just enough to keep her out of suspicion.
Second, the villains are religious fanatics “waging war against God”. To do this, they take children and indoctrinate them, with snakes, an adversarial character in Christian myth, as a central tenet. The end result is to destroy the parents, to turn them into “demons” with no faith and capable of horrors. Holly Jones almost certainly meant for Alex to be taken, for Dover to eventually kill him, and so on. They are the snake-charming, venom-drinking charlatans of a disabused and nameless religion. Their grievance with God is said to be that He let their son die of cancer. Perhaps this is another red herring, but it seems simple enough and personal enough to inspire their crusade. It also nicely parallels Dover’s own motivations and moral position.
Dover is a carpenter and a Godly man. His morality and assumptions about life are informed by his religious convictions. As are his certainties. It’s interesting to see all this compromised by those very convictions, but it’s also the brutal deeds of the most Godly man in the film that reveal the vulnerability of religious morality. Loki’s adherence to a moral standard based on the imposition of order via the rationality of humans (how else would you describe “the law”?) is superior as a mechanism with which to deal with the horrific chaos life sometimes puts in our path.
Though it’s possible that there are other pagan traditions in the mix, the one that comes forth most clearly is Norse. Past Loki himself there is the “maiden in the maze” (Brunhilda) motif, the Nordic style of the mazes we see drawn in the film, and the symbolic sacrifice of the eye for wisdom. First, Alex’s eye is so damaged that it’s swollen shut and we often see shots that highlight his good eye. He alone has the knowledge, if not the understanding, that could lead Dover to the truth. Likewise, Loki is shot just above the eye and temporarily loses his vision in it (swelling and blood) as he stumbles across Holly Jones and ultimately saves Anna Dover.
The mazes are actually a haunting motif in the film. Can’t you tell? Also note the faded cross, barely visible, on his left hand.
Prisoners is an ambitious film and it’s not always subtle about it. One of its major weaknesses may be its commitment to all of these symbolic and thematic streams. It somehow pulls it off, though, only leaving a few truly confusing moments (Dover being blamed by Joy Birch is one of them) which may actually make sense in a rewatch. Though its length is barely felt due to the excellent pacing of the film, there is still some room to condense what’s here into something tighter, clearer, and slightly more urgent. This film is just shy of being a masterpiece and I believe its value will appreciate over time. It’s already received critical and audience acclaim for various reasons, which I suppose is one benefit of being so chimeric with its themes.
I may have written 2500 words extolling its other virtues, but I still think the one that stands out is just how surprising it manages to be. The richness and depth that accompany that surprise will be what gives this film staying power and rewatchability, two things that are very hard for mystery thrillers to incorporate without rapidly diminishing returns.
With stunning performances, the rare intelligent handling of complex moral ideas, and a bunch of fun and creepy mythic symbolism just to ice the cake, I think Prisoners is easily one of the most interesting films of the year. And for me, at least, it pretty much came out of nowhere. Not only when I found out it existed, but while sitting there watching it.