Prisoners Is Powerful But Emotionally Exhausting

Two couples’ worst nightmare comes true in director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners.

Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family, not rip two apart, but that is exactly what we witness in this harrowing drama.

Prisoners begins on a dreary fall day, with two neighborhood families having dinner. But before the turkey is served, the youngest daughters of the Dover and Birch families are abducted in a beaten down RV. Panic sets into the families as the girls go missing into the night. The RV is found by Detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and its driver, Alex Jones, is incarcerated. But Jones is clean. His RV has no sign of the girls or a struggle and he is released. This triggers the father, Keller Dover – played by Hugh Jackman – into action. He kidnaps Jones and, with the help of the other distraught father, Franklin Birch, tortures him to give up the whereabouts of the girls. But Jones doesn’t cooperate and Dover tests the limits of his faith for the life of his daughter.

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Prisoners is powerful but emotionally exhausting. The film never lets up on the true realities behind child abductions. Most of the focus is on the families dealing with the fear, depression, and sheer helplessness in the days following the disappearances. But it is Dover who takes matters into his own hands. Hugh Jackman is the force pushing the emotional barriers of the movie. His rage and despair over his daughters abduction is piercing. Prisoners is an actor’s playground, whether it be Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo or Paul Dano. Each explores the depths of sorrow, hatred, fear and loss to such a degree, their eyes must have needed loads of Visine to prevent all day red-eyes on set.

Pray for the best, prepare for the worst is Keller Dover’s life motto. A man who has stockpiles of food and supplies in his basement in case of unforeseen natural disasters is a man who is meticulously prepared. But this is one event that he cannot prepare for; one problem he can’t solve. Dover prides himself on being ‘a man’ – providing for and protecting his family. The guilt and powerlessness he feels spurs him to look for answers, and he finds the only avenue the man tied to the disappearances, Jones himself. He will go to all lengths to gain the necessary information. Here, Prisoners poses a confounding question, something that goes beyond just people, but to governments in a post 911 world. Do the ends justify the means? Is Dover’s torture of Jones justified if it gets his daughter back? Logic and morality are removed from that question when all that remains is a primal urge to protect and save your offspring.

The film has many Catholic overtones, whether it being dangling crosses around necks and rear view mirrors or priests involved in pedophilia. But perhaps the most significant is the reasoning behind the abductions. They are twisted and evil manipulations of God’s will. It makes me ponder the human condition more; how performing heinous acts in the name of God is justified in some people’s minds. Perhaps, at some point, the mind will turn on itself, telling itself only what it wants to hear to offset one’s conscience.

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Or it’s just as simple as the most poignant line in this last season of Dexter: “People are crazy.”

Prisoners is relentless, pounding its audience with a bleak, gut-wrenching reality. But, at times, it was too much for me. I needed a moment to breathe, overwhelmed with the raw nature of the story. That moment was never to be, as even in its ending, Prisoners gives only the stark realities, even if their may be a sliver lining.

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