We learn a lot about each other and ourselves during times of extraordinary circumstance. One would like to believe that during times of trauma that our true colours come through. We prove ourselves to be moral people, courageous people, or in the case of groups of people we prove our strength in numbers and faith in each other. More often than not though, the opposite is true.
We show our true colours alright, but we seldom like what those colours reveal.
PRISONERS begins on Thanksgiving Day when The Dover Family walks down the street to celebrate with The Birch Family. While the adults prepare the table and the meal, their two youngest daughters want to go outside and play. The adults allow them to go under the supervision of their older siblings. However, when a misunderstanding sends them out a second time unsupervised, the parents’ worst fears come true.
On Thanksgiving evening, Anna Dover and Joy Birch go missing.
When Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) asks his son what could have happened, he mentions that earlier the girls were playing around an RV. As that information is passed on to Police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a search begins – one that quickly leads to the RV in question. However, when the vehicle is found, we learn that its owner Alex Jones (Paul Dano) has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old…and that he couldn’t have pulled off an abduction like this.
With no evidence of any wrongdoing, Alex is turned over to his mother Holly (Melissa Leo). However Keller remains unconvinced. He approaches Alex to get his own answers, and gets just enough of one to get both his anger and suspicions up. Believing that Alex knows more than he’s letting on, Keller takes matters into his own hands:
Keller kidnaps Alex at gunpoint, holds him hostage, and begins to physically torture him in the hopes of learning the truth.
Meanwhile the days and hours continue to pass, and the odds of Joy and Anna coming home safe continue to plummet for these two fractured families.
In the opening moments of PRISONERS, we see three of the stories core themes overlap one-another. In the very first scene we are out in the woods, hearing Keller say The Lord’s Prayer, while his son hunts a deer. That’s PRISONERS in a nutshell: the wild, faith, and family.
As the girls’ abduction plays out, we squirm as we see Keller take matters into his own hands. He stalks Alex, he intimidates him, he threatens him, and ultimate he acts. As we watch him take such steps, we begin to squirm and wince, finding a special level of disgust for the amount of physical and emotional torture he inflicts on Alex. We watch it all and feel as if Keller has become inhumane, and that he has forsaken Alex’s human rights. Funny thing though – Keller is acting on animal instinct. There is no stag or doe present in that early scene to protect their fawn, and it wouldn’t have done much good in the face of a bullet anyway. However, the very fact that the men are out there call to mind the dangers that come with being in the wild – not the least of which is a mother creature that feels its young is being threatened.
Watching PRISONERS, one wants to believe that we’re above such reactions…but it’s only natural to go to extremes when protecting our offspring.
A few times over, we’re given glimpses of Keller and his family being people of faith. Keller prays more than once, there’s an Ichthys on his truck’s tailgate, and a crucifix prominently hangs from the rearview mirror. One could make a case that PRISONERS is about one family questioning their faith, asking themselves “why us, Lord?” when they lead such wholesome lives. However, that’s not what jumps out at me. What PRISONERS seems most interested in discussing when it comes to faith is the way it can be discarded in times of crisis. For a family that seems so devout – and certainly for one man who seems to embody scripture – The Dovers have a severe spiritual crisis on their hands. Not only do they not hold fast to their beliefs during this difficult time, but they seem to actively defy it.
PRISONERS isn’t looking to criticize belief, but it does ask a valid question: what good is having a belief if you drop it at the first sign of trouble?
Which leads to the film’s final key theme – that of family. Like The Kellers’ crisis of faith during this terrible ordeal, they also undergo a family crisis of sorts. Husband and wife cope in different ways, but those different ways seem to be deeply dividing them. They don’t reach for one-another during this ordeal; they can barely even look at each other. Instead, all three Kellers seem to retreat in separate directions. The movie isn’t critical of this trend, matter of fact, it actually seems to be compassionate. However, it still underscores the way families can splinter during times of stress.
One would think that the opposite would be true. One would hope that in a situation this difficult that a family would circle the wagons and fight as one. Sadly though, it’s the opposite that happens far too often.
When you bring all of these elements of human nature together, infuse them with great acting and a beautifully bleak visual palette, you get something good. The film is in no hurry, and because of that every interaction and decision is given its due. This is a patient film – one that knows how upsetting the crux of its story is. It wants us to spend a lot of time with the characters as they search their souls for comfort in these difficult times.
The most upsetting part is that they search high and low, but comfort isn’t coming anytime soon.