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Prisoners is a taut, psychologically draining exploration of the devastating effects of hope in the face of loss. And, of course, with the likes of Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard completely acting their asses off, it’s also a powerhouse of performance. While these players spend much of the film teary eyed and looking like they’re in the midst of a monumental hangover, their pain always feels real and empathy-inspiring. Jackman's rage here has none of the hallmarks of his more popular comic-book work and Gyllenhaal plays brooding as effectively as ever. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures this grief beautifully; his restrained style keeps the actors at the forefront of your attention, yet with minimal flourishes, his work remains wonderfully entrancing. Director Denis Villeneuve handles all of this with grace and finesse, sidestepping the dramatic pitfalls of Aaron Guzikowski’s otherwise expertly paced script.
The basic plot has Jackman’s Keller Dover kidnap the prime suspect in his daughter’s abduction, Paul Dano’s Alex Jones. This act of vigilantism puts him at loggerheads with Gyllenhaal’s detective Loki, whose investigation is bogged down in an unholy amount of dead-ends and cold leads. As the days drag by and the pressure mounts, both are driven to increasingly callous measures to save the life of the little girl.
As with many a crime thriller, the motivations for the crimes are the symptoms of a perspective that at once reflects the worst parts within all of us and either condemns them, or uses them to make a commentary on our shortcomings. This Frankenstein's monster technique depicts antagonists as an amalgam of our seediest impulses. Take the similarly themed, Se7en, for example. Kevin Spacey’s horrific crimes received relative justification by the film's conclusion, and you'd be hard-pressed not to agree (even if it's in some dirty little corner of your mind) to some degree with his ramblings. He picked up on the universal distaste most people have for indulgence and took it to a practical, yet obviously psychopathic level (that is, by gruesomely murdering people according to the 'Seven Deadly Sins'). Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker used this collective flaw to say, yes, we all complain about the excesses of our culture, but what are we doing to solve them?
[[MORE]]In the case of Prisoners, however, the focus is more on the manipulation of religious ideals for the sake of self-servitude and the fallout that occurs in the clash between two religious beliefs. Most of it it is hidden beneath the veneer of the film's plot, but at times there are the unmistakable rumblings of a religious fable; of archetypal characters clashing ideologically in their archetypal roles. Keller is the stoic, devout Christian who squares off against Loki, the mysterious yet driven Freemason. There's even the added layer of (SPOILERS) throwing Dover's Christian ideologies against the antagonist's Christian ideologies, which, with their splintered perspectives, never line up. Villeneuve and crew give it all a sense of abstract mysticism, peppering their world with more than its fair share of religious images and symbols. Loki sports astrological tattoos and a telltale Freemasons' ring. Keller, who is the walking embodiment of reality marred by ideals, boasts a crucifix dangling from the rear-view of his pick-up, the symbol often turned away from view and indistinguishable. There's also the constant reiteration of a distorted sense of reality, in those out-of-focus shots of rain dripping onto a windscreen, blurring the world beyond, which lend credence to the film's intonations.
Excluding the ambiguity of Gyllenhaal’s motivations, the characters claim to be driven by religious ideals and on the surface, the conflict between one character's ideals and those of a hidden enemy is a source of pain. However, Dover exacerbates his torment by refusing to balance his actions and his ideals. As he takes to torturing a mentally handicapped man these justifications (understandably) become increasingly hollow. At one point (a moment of near-gratuity) Dover attempts to use the Lord’s Prayer as a form of self-enacted penance, but is unable to utter the line: ‘…and forgive those who have trespassed against us.’ His religious ideals have been negated by his actions. The film hinges on the fallibility of organised religion and Keller's repeated motif, 'Pray for the best, prepare for the worst,' is used as the example. Guzikowski seems to argue for the virtues of controlling your own fate through choices and actions, not in hiding behind ideals when you've transgressed against another human being. Justifying your actions with selective religious ideals obstructs truth and ultimately, the children are the souls who suffer when we stubbornly adhere to these beliefs during a crisis.
This conclusion is tenuous at best considering the film's attempts at catharsis in the closing scenes (the final half an hour instead opts for narrative closure). That final stretch muddies any attempts at pinpointing an overarching moral point (not that there needs to be one, of course), and instead we are left with questions. Is the battle between one religious ideology and another a veiled reference to the War on Terror? Or are Guzikowski's strokes much broader, encompassing the shortcomings of religion as a concept, in its failed attempts to successfully apply itself to modern life?
Maybe neither. Even without all of these fascinating cultural references, Prisonersremains a solid psychological thriller, through and through.