Secret chambers were once solely the purview of gothic castles. In the mystery thrillers of pre-WWII it was the mansions of the monied elites that hid a few extra rooms. Western society lost its taste for stories involving the damned aristocracy and the evil upper class. Monsters these days tend to come from the people, but the love for the clandestine villain’s lair remains strong.
Now our everyman-monsters maintain villainous lairs every bit as fatal as those of their well-off ancestors, even if built on a budget from Home Depot materials. Lurking inside the cookie cutter, McMansion exteriors, modern monsters have fashioned their own country-gothic torture chambers and homemade dungeons. “Prisoners” joins Disturbia, the remake of Fright Night, and of course Silence of the Lambs in inviting us into this world.
Over the course of “Prisoners” the audience will discover multiple chambers of the macabre. Plain homes hiding makeshift dungeons and sacrificial altars. Some intricate, some seemingly built by unsure hands, just blunt enough to perform their task.
Not that this doesn’t have precedent in the real world. This is the age of Josef Fritzl, Megan Huntsman, and Ariel Castro, or more correctly the age where their crimes came to light. For decades they were free to live their double lives. Their suburban homes provided perfect cover for their abuses.
Society was on guard against their type. Middle America was particularly sensitive to satanic cults, so much so that they’d often invent the cult ties as justification for witch hunts in lieu of any evidence. The same environment that gave us Paradise Lost parts 1 - 3, and Witch Hunt (2008).
It may be giving things away to say that Prisoners ultimately defers to that rational. Its not enough ultimately to have monsters: they must also follow a false god. Truth be told, it’s easier to relate the big bad to religion run amok. The real life monsters mentioned earlier, spurred by defects in character and upbringing, are far less memorable than the crimes they committed. The allure of evil people having plainly evil motivations is a part of appeal of this brand of entertainment.
I bring all this up to try to quantify why Prisoners works as well as it does. Certainly the production doesn’t realize they’re making a b-movie. I can imagine the director assembling the footage and seeing “Silence of the Lambs” or “Seven” when what we’re really left with is well done episode of the X-Files (mid series). Prisoners presents us with a souffle that under a closer inspection is just melted cheddar.
But what cheese!
The Thanksgiving-day abduction of two girls from their home sends their parents in wildly different directions. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) turns into a model of old-testament certitude, while his wife descends into a medically-induced fugue state. The Birches invert the dynamic, with timid Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) deferring to his wife (Viola Davis). All are convinced that the abduction is tied to the dilapidated RV spotted in their neighborhood.
The RV and the driver are tracked down but the lead investigator Loki (yes, that’s the character’s name, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers after a day’s worth of grueling interrogation that driver, Alex, (Paul Dano) is mentally invalid, with the IQ of a ten year old. He reasons there’s no way for such a person to abduct two children, and there’s no physical evidence linking him to the crime. So after 48 hours, Alex is released.
Keller is incensed and drives to the station to confront Alex. They meet in the parking lot, and Keller manages to separate him from the police guard in a fit of frustration. In their moment together Alex mutters “they only cried when I left”, and stuns Keller. The boy’s surely involved.
Taking matters into his own hands, Keller kidnaps Alex, converting an unused property into a torture chamber of his own. Franklin is drafted to assist with the interrogation, but despite the physical abuse, Alex remains mute. Meanwhile Loki’s investigation leads to a web of tangents, deeper into the community’s longstanding unresolved child abduction cases.
Prisoners comes to the same plot intersections as Mother, The Vanishing (1988), and Picnic at Hanging Rock but always veers toward the conventional. Rest assured, the mystery will be solved--with helpful exposition to fill in the grey areas no less! Loki becomes the beneficiary of so much coincidence that I’m surprised Prisoners didn’t throw a dream sequence in for good measure. “Prisoners” is a film that may have benefitted a bit from the soft touch. Alex doesn’t just confess to Keller but to the whole audience, and so we know there’s more to his involvement. How much more fun to leave this confessions solely to Keller and spur doubt in the audience?
“Prisoners” leaves one bit of ambiguity in it’s wake. Just as Keller never truly breaks Alex, neither does the audience ever discover his true nature. How much does Alex ever know? Does he have a moral compass? Does he understand the situation around him? Though dealt a benevolent hand at the end, will Alex be able to function in his new reality?