Prisoners

Thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review.

Though Villeneuve does a good job of making sure that Prisoners neither looks nor moves like a Hollywood thriller, he does succumb to one particular cliché early on: the rule of reverse emphasis, which says that anything that is discussed at length but not shown (or, more accurately, revealed) in close-up must therefore be important to the third act. Thus, the moment Melissa Leo, playing Paul Dano’s aunt, mentions that her husband disappeared years ago while a framed photo of him remains out of focus, viewer knows they’re being teased with an ending.

Lo and behold, Gyllenhaal soon finds a rotting corpse in the basement of a convicted pedophile, who tells the cops that he didn’t know the man’s name, but that he was a serial child killer. The corpse has a maze-shaped pendant around its neck, and eventually, maze motifs start popping up in the film, though it takes Gyllenhaal—who apparently has a bad visual memory—an agonizingly long time to connect the two.

Once he does, though, the movie effectively cancels out its themes. Hugh Jackman, the obsessive born-again vigilante, was right all along: Dano really is connected to the crime. (Leo is the culprit.) Torture turns out to be just as effective as police work; in fact, Jackman solves the crime first. The movie’s hints at the moral decay beneath Jackman’s family values—which range from the rotting childhood home where he keeps Dano prisoner to a somewhat heavy-handed close-up of Jackman accidentally crushing his daughter’s doll house while scuffling with his son—turn out to be for naught. The final twist vindicates him, and when Leo describes the crimes as “a war with God,” all of Jackman’s religious self-doubt gets annulled. The global war against Evil is real, and all measures are ultimately justified.

Jackman—who comes close to being the film’s villain, especially once he starts misdirecting Gyllenhaal—ends up a hero. His final descent into a hole in the ground, which echoes of the ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing, again briefly hints that his character may be destroyed by hubris; however, the movie’s closing shot cancels that interpretation by all but spelling out a happy ending, even throwing in a touch of predestination for good measure.

It’s the not the capital-E evil itself that’s problematic; it’s the film’s conception of it. Jackman’s Christianity is vague: His self-sufficiency and obsession with disaster suggests Evangelicalism, though his fixation on the Lord’s Prayer seems more mainline Protestant. And yet, in the end, Prisoners sides with the idea of evil as an external force (e.g. “those people” are evil) rather than a corrupting power—a worldview that’s more Manichean than Christian.

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