Creating sympathetic characters in films is something most filmmakers love to do. It can be done in a variety of ways, mostly by seeing them treated unfairly in the first act (by their boss, parents, peers, criminals, etc.) then seeing them overcome said adversity by the end of the film.
On easy way to gain sympathy with a character is having a member of their family be kidnapped (cf. Taken, Commando). This has the added advantage of giving the protagonist a clean slate to do “whatever it takes” to get their family member back.
Of course real life doesn’t really work like that. When children get kidnapped it’s unlikely their father is as ripped as Arnie in Commando or has the same ‘set of skills’ as Liam Neeson in Taken. Instead parents rely on the police and criminal justice system to deal with the situation as best they can.
Prisoners goes some way in dealing with the reality of having to rely on such on a system. Of course built into any justice system is the assurance not simply that someone is punished for a crime, but it is the right person. But what happens when you are convinced someone has committed a crime, but the police have not yet uncovered the evidence necessary for a conviction? This is the moral dilemma Prisoners attempts to explore.
The crime in the case of this film is the abduction and possible murder of two young girls on Thanksgiving. Their fathers (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) are understandably distraught by the situation, and tell the police an RV was parked in their neighbourhood, the driver of which they believe might be responsible.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective in charge of the case. He soon tracks down the RV which is owned by a man with learning difficulties, Alex (Paul Dano). Gyllenhaal believes that Alex lacks the mental capacity to successfully hide the girls from the police, and so releases him without charge. However, Jackman becomes increasingly convinced he is the girls’ kidnapper and decides to try and prove it.
In some ways Prisoners needs to be seen side-by-side with a film like Taken to be fully understood. Justice is a highly complex principle which is never as simple as ‘killing the bad guy’. While Prisoners does have quite a simple premise, the seriousness with which it deals with said principle makes it one of the smarter American films to come out in the past few years.
If there is to be a criticism, it’s that the last ten minutes fall into the trap of being just like any other American thriller film. It’s as though the director was like “I’ve asked a lot of hard questions here, so let’s give the audience a nice, cosy, satisfying ending to make up for it.” As a result, what has happened before feels too much like a construct to ask the (important) moral questions the film deals with.
With its ending, the film breaks a few principles which I use to judge how believable a story is. The first important principle is that characters should dictate where a story goes, rather than the other way round. This rule being broken is easiest to see in horror films when characters split up for no reason, or decide to go investigate mysterious sounds in the basement. Especially by the end of Prisoners there were a few times it felt characters were doing things because it suited the story for them to do so, rather than making choices I could genuinely believe in.
The second principle relates to coincidence. The golden rule here is that a story can use coincidence to get a character into trouble, but never use it to get them out of trouble. One of the most famous recent examples of a film that also breaks this rule is in the latest Indiana Jones film. In it, just as a nuclear bomb is about to go off, he happens to notice he is next to a lead-lined fridge, and jumps inside to avoid certain death (much to the groans of audiences everywhere). Although Prisoners has nothing so glaring as this, it’s frustrating that a film that seems to be all about its characters and theme, finishes by sacrificing both these things for its ending.
Despite my misgivings about the final few scenes of the film, there is more than enough within the rest to make it something worth investing your time in. The moral questions it raises are reminded me of the ability of art to explore issues in a more multi-faceted way than any essay on the same topics can ever hope to. Prisoners then is gritty and realistic… in a very Hollywood way. But maybe that’s okay sometimes.