Law Review: Prisoners
Prisoners is a wrenching film. It is also a very good film, and would be a great one if the filmmakers had shown as much empathy for their audience as they did for all of their characters. It is the story of two families whose daughters vanish, and the escalating sins the frantic parents commit in their attempts to find them—disregarding law and morality in response to crimes against their children.
As compelling as the film is, there is a limit to an audience’s tolerance for tension. Two hours of mounting dread will exhaust many viewers, and the close-up depictions of suffering are often gratuitous. A series of heavy-handed religious references thro
ughout the film might lead some viewers to suspect that Prisoners is a diatribe about moral hypocrisy among religious believers. The film’s promotional trailer led at least one journalist to wonder whether it would be an allegorical attack on enhanced interrogation techniques. Although the film tiptoes right up to the line of both clichés, it is actually far more nuanced. On top of its condemnation of vigilantism and torture, Hugh Jackman’s performance is a moving meditation on faith. As for Jake Gyllenhaal, his role is a towering tribute to law enforcement – one that surpasses his portrayal of a Los Angeles police officer in last year’s excellent End of Watch.
Most of the film’s consequential actions are clearly serious crimes—desperate parents torture the suspected kidnapper of their daughters. But, law enforcement officials often retain the discretion to forego charges that arise out of situations like the one that plays out in Prisoners. Prosecutors can charge individuals with lesser crimes, or seek lighter sentences than the law and facts allow. In Texas last year, a grand jury decided not to charge a rancher who killed a laborer with his bare hands, finding that forensic and eyewitness testimony supported the rancher’s explanation that he had caught the laborer in the act of sexually assaulting a five-year-old girl, the rancher’s daughter.
Under Texas law, a person is “justified” in using deadly force when such force is “immediately necessary” to prevent the serious injury or death of another. Depending on the circumstances of the altercation, the grand jury could conceivably have decided that the rancher exceeded the lawful use of force by killing the laborer after he had separated the man from his daughter. Perhaps the grand jury would have found that the rancher reasonably believed that the laborer remained an immediate threat to himself or his daughter even after the rancher intervened. On the other hand, the grand jurors might have felt that, owing to the gross nature of the laborer’s alleged attack on the little girl, the interests of justice did not require holding the rancher to strict compliance with the law.
In Prisoners, Terrence Howard and Hugh Jackman play Franklin Birch and Keller Dover, the fathers of the two missing girls. Viola Davis and Maria Bello play their mothers. Jackman’s role dominates the others, so his veteran co-stars find themselves with relatively little to do. Nevertheless, all make the most of their roles. Thanks to Jackman’s outstanding performance, and the ominous dread that director Denis Villeneuve imbues in each scene, the audience shares Dover’s mounting frustration as the saga unfolds. Paul Dano’s character, an apparently mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones, gives Dover reason to suspect that he knows about the girls’ disappearance. Shortly thereafter, Jones learns the hard way that Keller Dover is the very last man anyone should tease with information about his child’s safety. The sharp writing and Dano’s subtle, ambiguous performance lend great credibility to Dover’s determination that he must brutalize Jones. As a result, Dover remains a sympathetic character even though what he has done or might be doing to Jones haunts every other scene. When the film verged on unbearable, Jake Gyllenhaal provides a welcome relief as Detective Loki, an exceptional policeman whose dogged pursuit of the truth gives the story a desperately needed moral foundation.
Prisoners is rated “R” for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. It is two hours and thirty-three minutes long. It will appeal to fans of troubling morality plays like Doubt and The Ox-Bow Incident. Its extensive violence will be too disturbing for some viewers.
–by Austin Murnane, Entertainment Columnist