Movie Review: Prisoners

Movie Review: Prisoners

How do we deal with tragedy

By Mark HadleyWednesday 16 Oct 2013MoviesReading Time: 4 minutes

Prisoners is not the most comfortable thriller to watch, but it may be the most instructive when it comes to understanding how humans approach tragedy.

The uncomfortable thriller questioning the purpose of suffering

Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a carpenter from a semi-rural American setting whose family consists of a wife, teenage son and younger daughter. The film opens with Keller teaching his son Ralph to hunt and we get an insight into the issues that will come into play as the father’s voice-over supplies the words of the Lord’s Prayer over the shooting of an innocent deer:

“… forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

Dover’s community is a simple, god-fearing one with Gospel music on the radio and an RV in most driveways. On Thanksgiving his family heads over to the Birch household where they indulge in huge amounts of meat and wile away the hours telling stories and watching TV while their youngest daughters play together. However the panic sets in when the sun begins to set and no-one can find where the girls have got to. When all the usual hiding places have been explored, suspicion falls on an unfamiliar camper van that was parked in the street. The police eventually track the vehicle down and apprehend a young man who is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but still appears to know more than he is saying. The clock is now ticking on the girls’ survival. But state laws prevent the suspect from being held longer than 48 hours without a charge and, when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can’t tie him to the kidnapping, the young man is set free. But Dover is convinced that the suspect holds the key to his daughter’s whereabouts and kidnaps him for some private questioning. How far will he go to get the truth, and how strong will his convictions be when police inquiries start turning up other suspects?

Filmgoers will see shades of Mystic River in Prisoners’ hometown setting and haunting camera style. The film is aptly named because, like that Clint Eastwood classic, its story revolves around the families and investigators imprisoned by its tragedy. Dover’s wife is chained to her bed by grief; Loki to his squad car by everyone’s expectations that he will solve the case. And Dover is trapped by his promises as a father. 

Keller’s own father taught him that the most important thing in life was to ‘Be ready’, and he has grown up a survivalist with a basement stocked with supplies, praying for the best but preparing for the worst. Yet his inability to keep his own family safe sends shockwaves through his character as his wife screams, “You made us feel safe! You told us you could protect us from anything!” Clearly not. Life’s greatest tragedies are those we never see coming, and this realization paves the way for the film’s strongest piece of imagery.

A great many of the Prisoners’ clues reference a maze which both Dover and Loki are unable to find. But the maze is more than a location, it’s a reference to the film’s real question. All of the characters spend their time wandering the streets, chasing down clues that turn into dead ends and coming up against blank walls that actually turn out to be doors. In doing so they demonstrate their approach to tragedy. Prisoners is very much about whether or not we believe there is a reason for suffering. The personal maze the characters find themselves in is created by their search for answers, and their belief that they exist to be found. Loki is determined to solve this criminal puzzle despite a coroner telling him that some mysteries are just unsolvable. Likewise Dover knows there’s an answer but comes to a point where he realizes he’s just not sufficient to find it. 

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On several occasions the characters are told, ‘Solve the maze and you’ll be allowed to go home.’ But the solution they’re looking for isn’t just the location of the girls. It is the quest for peace. The film contains countless references to God’s control in the midst of pain, both over the circumstances that bring it about and His ability to bring it to an end. It also references our responsibility for sin, the root cause of all pain. Initially it looks as though Prisoners is taking pot shots at an overly simplistic view of the world. But what becomes increasingly clear as the plot reaches its climax is that the characters’ real peace rests in the knowledge that justice will be done, and God does in fact hear prayers.  

Rating: MA15+
Distributor: Roadshow
Release Date: October 17