I have very conflicted feelings about Prisoners as a movie. I’m going to say there are some mild(ish?) spoilers in this one. I’m not going to go in depth on a lot of the plot points. (Honestly, if you watch the trailer you already know 90% of what I’m going to be talking about.)
I will say one thing flat out–it’s a very well put together movie. The cinematography is excellent. The way the movie was shot really adds to the suspense, and makes it feel very enclosed and claustrophobic… which of course goes with the entire Prisoners idea. There were several scenes where I hunched over in my chair, covering my mouth with my hands because the movie did drag me along into a dark and terrible place.
The entire reason I wanted to see Prisoners was because I thought it looked like an ode to vigilante torture porn, basically, which is normally how kidnaping movies go. You know, kids get stolen, police can’t find them, someone (normally super manly dad) takes matters into his own hands, goes vigilante, saves the day, and we all live happily ever after.
For all the very real problems Prisoners had, that was surprisingly not one of them. There are some bloody and intensely discomfiting scenes where Keller (Hugh Jackman) beats and tortures the man who he is certain kidnapped his daughter. Perhaps the only payoff on this is that the ending in no way justifies what he did; him torturing the mentally disabled Alex Jones does not really help him find his daughter.
Rather, what saves her in the end is the continued efforts of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal and seriously Detective Loki???), and I’d even argue Keller’s activities actually delay Loki solving the case. And the point is brought up subtly and largely ignored by the other characters that ultimately, Keller was torturing a victim. (In fact, Keller’s wife Grace, who has spent most of the movie in a sleeping-pill-induced stupor, tries to convince both herself and Loki that Keller is a good man and what he did was somehow necessary.)
So Prisoners didn’t, to my relief, overtly lionize what should be considered an appalling act. And there are some interesting points it raises along the way–like when Franklin (father of the other abducted girl, played by Terrence Howard) tries to talk Keller out of torturing Alex, and basically gets steamrollered by Keller’s utter certainty. There’s definitely something there to the way Keller drags more people into the horrors he’s perpetrating… and then ultimately is left to his own devices as Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) refuse to participate but also refuse to actually stop him.
Keller is also presented as a very stereotypical religious hunter/survivalist/gun nut–the movie opens with him taking his son hunting and reciting the Lord’s prayer before they shoot a deer. Which I’m sure will rub some people very much the wrong way, but it’s also very believable he’d be the sort to talk tough about trying to make like Jack Bauer and beat someone half to death until they tell him what he wants to know.
There’s a lot of mileage you could get out of how Keller dehumanizes Alex (he even literally says, “he’s not human any more”), or how he seems to be a very weak man desperately trying to be strong and take control of a situation that is by definition uncontrollable by means of violence. There is even a point in one of those oh god I can’t watch this scenes were Keller screams at Alex, “Why are you making me do this to you?” I honestly think the movie is at its (horrified cringe-inducing) best when it’s focused on Keller’s transformation into something monstrous.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay on target. Instead of keeping with the true horror of the film, it goes off into serial killer conspiracy symbolism land, and that’s kind of where it started spinning off its axis. There are several instances in the plot where the choice to make it that much more convoluted really added nothing to the story and just created more loose ends that were never satisfactorily tied up. I also think those plot decisions meant that details got lost in the shuffle.
This is not a movie I would tell people to go out and watch. It was creepy and made me cringe in my seat and not because it was bad. I don’t generally go out of my way to watch movies like this one. But I will say that I thought the cast was really excellent (and Jake Gyllenhaal specifically, though I’m still not sure about his spasmodic blinking) and obviously it made me think a lot. This one is going to stick with me and keep making me feel deeply uncomfortable for a while.