Prisoners (2013)


“The Real Dilemma: Prisoners of Our Own Device”

Influenced by the overly libidinal 1960s, film scholars spend a lot of time and energy tilting at the windmills of conventional cultures, such as the Hollywood film industry. Take, for example, Gene Youngblood’s assessment in his 1970 book, Expanded Cinema: “Profit-motivated commercial entertainment, by its very nature, cannot supply [the] new vision…[of] an expanded cinematic language. Commercial entertainment works against art, exploits the alienation and boredom of the public, by perpetuating a system of condition response to formulas.” Not only is this patently untrue, its precise opposite is more apropos of a full understanding of Hollywood cinema in its full complexity.

The most startling thing about Hollywood genre films is how consistently more interesting they are than they ought to be. The terrific film, Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a stunning script by Aaron Guzikowski, is a case in point. The film concerns two families, the Dovers and the Birches, who each have a daughter kidnapped by a mentally handicapped man driving around town in a broken down RV. Indeed, as a formulaic thriller, horrible things do happen for the next two and a half grueling hours, virtually unendurable for a parent of such children. Yet endure I did, but not for the anesthetizing adrenaline produced by the film’s sensory output. Instead, I became fascinated by the two central characters’ abysmal relationship to any proper sense of community.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, the father of one of the kidnapped girls. In the first shot of the movie, he teaches his older son to kill a deer, channeling The Deer Hunter. Yet, without the Vietnam War subtext of Michael Cimino’s 1978 masterpiece, we know something is amiss. On the truck ride back home to deliver the venison for Thanksgiving dinner, Keller explains to his son that when the apocalypse comes, he must be ready to protect his family at all costs, that the government will be of no use, and their fellow citizens will turn against them.

It was at this point that my interest in the film exponentially increased. At my house, required viewing includes any show devoted to doomsday preppers, crazy folk who prepare for the end times by hoarding guns and supplies. The only thing I want during the “end times” is said end to come as quickly as possible. Seeing the accomplishments of human civilization destroyed would break my spirit far more than any EM pulse or nuclear winter. Besides, the loss of the cinema at Revelations is moot to me; cinema has already exposed itself as the conduit to the human soul.

The greatest moment of any of my family’s beloved apocalypse shows occurs during the first season of Doomsday Preppers, absurdly the highest rated show ever on the National Geographic channel. Teaching his family to shoot a pistol, a man blows off his thumb when the gun misfires. Does the man stitch his mangled digit back together with sticks, bird saliva, and honey? No, the medical crew hired by the filmmakers’ insurance company uses modern EMT technologies to stop the bleeding until they can get the dope to a modern hospital.

Despite the fact that Prisoners appears to be about kidnapped children, we in fact almost never see the abducted kids. The odd plural in the film’s title indicates that its main thematic interest is how a far wider swath of characters imprison themselves. By insanely separating himself off from his community in the first minutes of the film, Dover seals his fate even before the girls disappear. You have to watch the film to see the brilliance with which Villeneuve and Guzikowski depict Dover digging his own spiritual grave of isolation, culminating in the film’s perfect final moments, driving home this message for all time. The apocalypse befalls Dover, but not the one for which he has been prepping.

For his part, the aptly named Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is equally isolated from the rest of humanity. We first see him eating Thanksgiving dinner alone at a Chinese restaurant. His lame attempts to flirt with the waitress fail miserably, and indeed it is the last moment in the film when we see him as anything other than the maniacally driven police agent, attempting to keep whole a world with which he himself merely interacts in emotional shards. Despite the fact that he is an expert detective, having never lost a case, he wanders the film aimlessly, easily drawn away from rescuing the girls, and toward the anti-social horrors of Dover’s violent agenda. In short, Loki is imprisoned away from his fellow humans in as severe a way as the reprehensible Dover. None of this is the result of the numbing formulae of the Hollywood thriller. Instead, the film’s startling inventiveness lies in its building a critique of human isolationism on the shards of such Hollywood clichés.