Tuesday, September 24, 2013

'Prisoners' (2013) directed by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners is not an easy movie to watch.  Sure it's got beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography and looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish, but the subject matter is about as grim as it gets.  Two families, the Dovers and the Birches, meet for Thanksgiving dinner. They're the very model of suburban American perfection, loving, attentive to their children, friendly and Christian.  Yet as the meal winds down they realise their two preteen daughters, Anna and Joy, have gone missing. The only lead is that they were last seen playing near a sinister looking beat-up RV.  Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) quickly tracks down the RV and its driver, the super-creepy Alex Jones (Paul Dano).

All leads point to him, but he's not spilling the beans and with no hard evidence the police are forced to release him from custody.  Wracked with grief, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the father of one the missing girls, abducts Alex, locks him in an abandoned apartment complex with the aim of beating the whereabouts of his daughter out of him. This complex set-up is but the first sequences of a sober and extremely depressing exploration of parental grief and child murder.  

This is all fantastically constructed and though the film works within familiar Seven and Silence of the Lambs style serial killer tropes, it feels raw, innovative and tense throughout.  Hugh Jackman has never been better, giving an astonishingly wide ranging performance than manages to encompass victim, sociopath, action hero and tender parent - sometimes all in the same scene.  Jackman has got Oscar-winner written all over him, but Prisoners has an embarrassment of performance riches; Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard all elevate already great material to something special - there's a palpable, realistic grief emanating from the screen.

But Prisoners isn't really about a catching a serial killer; it's actually got more in common with John Ford's The Searchers and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  What quickly becomes apparent is that the film is a savage riposte to the torturing/tortured Americans of Zero Dark Thirty and 24 (to name but two).  With no break in narrative suspense a complex argument is constructed that addresses every sick utilitarian argument in favour of torture.

The classic thought experiment that proponents of torture ask us to work through is the 'ticking bomb scenario'.  You have a man tied to a chair who knows where an explosive device that will kill hundreds is concealed.  You have 1 hour to discover where this device is or the blood of innocents will be on your hands.  Surely the ethical solution to this scenario is to pick up the pliers and go to town?  After all, what's a few ripped out fingernails versus countless innocent lives?  C'mon, this guy planted a bomb! He forfeited his human rights when he set out to deprive others of theirs!  Prisoners comprehensively demolishes this fucked up argument, exposing it as a fast-track to barbarism.

Within the allegory that Prisoners constructs, Hugh Jackman's Keller Dover is America post 9/11.  The opening shot of the film is Dover reciting the Lord's Prayer as he proudly watches his teenage son draw a bead on a deer and blow it away - a perfect snapshot of American masculinity.  He's a fiercely independent survivalist, ready to fend for himself if society were ever to collapse; his motto "Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst."  The abduction of his daughter becomes his own personal 9/11, a bolt from the blue that shatters the cosy security of his suburban life.

Importantly, when he makes the decision that the ends justify the means; that he is prepared to do, to become anything to get his daughter back we're on his side.  The film is carefully constructed to make him sympathetic; I heard people in the audience muttering "get the bastard" as he stalks his prey.  Before we know it he's constructing a sadistic torture chamber, all the while telling himself that he's a good man and it's his victim's fault for 'forcing' him to use these methods.

Quickly we realise that the title Prisoners doesn't relate to the narrative, Villeneuve is referring to the prisoners locked in the US State's torture chambers in Guantanamo Bay and countless other 'Black Sites'.  As a specific case: in 2002 the Americans captured Abu Zubaydah, the apparent Al-Qaeda second in command.  Immediately there was open discussion in US media as to whether Zubaydah should be tortured, Donald Rumsfeld stating quite plainly that his priority was "American lives, not the human rights of a terrorist".  So, Zubaydah was promptly waterboarded about 80 times, beaten, placed in cramped confinement, forced to stand for long periods of time, deprived of sleep, driven mad with noise, locked in a box full of insects (interestingly Prisoners features torture boxes full of snakes) and then placed in a "coffin-like box" constructed by the CIA Interrogation team.  James Elmer Mitchell, one of the men in charge of devising ever more sadistic methods of inflicting pain upon Zubaydah said "he must be treated like a dog in a cage".

The result of these atrocities was a litany of false leads which intelligence officials spent millions of dollars fruitlessly chasing up.  Intelligence officials stated "we tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered".  The 'Land of Liberty' debasing itself in this way harms itself more than the terrorists ever could, occupying the painful paradox of defending the concept of freedom and human rights by disposing of them entirely.

The psychic plight of Americans as they struggle to justify the barbarism of their 'good' state is shown in microcosm through Prisoners' Keller Dover, an obviously noble and honest man sacrificing his humanity in the name of his loved ones and destroying himself in the process. He becomes The Searcher's Ethan Edwards, or Travis Bickle - finding himself the embodiment of everything he despises.

Prisoners is an outstanding film, only slightly wobbling when it ventures a touch too far into macabre serial killer cliche.  It's about damn time a film came along with the guts to nail its political colours to the mast with such confidence and intelligence.  Prisoners trafficks in dread, grief, misery and sadism, but it's one of the most humanitarian and ethically sound mainstream films to come out this decade.  This is a much-needed cinematic treasure.

Prisoners is on general release from September 27

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