(Dir Denis Villeneuve) (2013)
A disclaimer is probably in order – The Varnished Culture has spent quite a bit of time, trouble and ingenuity avoiding Hugh Jackman. That’s right: we’ve managed to dodge his horse-opera, Australia; we’ve shied away from his faux opera, Les Misérables; we contrived to avoid Wolverine’s psychotic clutches in the 900 odd versions of X-men in which Hugh has appeared. And if we are to watch Professor Van Helsing tackle Count Dracula, we’ll take Edward Van Sloan, thanks. As a matter of fact, we recall seeing Hugh only once before, as a very shadowy character in Scoop, in which he was, we have to say, rather good.
So: Prisoners. Despite some reservations, we found it very good indeed, a graphic, harrowing and authentic account of a good man’s descent into the maelstrom, without pontification. And Jackman, heading a fine cast, was pretty sensational.
The story is, essentially, simple. Two sweet little girls go missing in a cold Pennsylvania town. A suspicious campervan parked nearby (from which music emanates) is implicated. The detective in charge (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to believe in the innocence of the simpleton in the campervan, Alex (Paul Dano), despite his incriminating attempt to flee. Mr Keller, father of one of the girls (Jackman) is unimpressed and after seeing Alex being cruel to his dog, decides to put a few questions to him on his own initiative (i.e., very, very roughly).
There are some obvious weaknesses here. For starters, a rich and feckless sprinkling of symbolism, that gets in the way of the central theme: deistic imagery abounds (Jackman’s fundamentalist survivalism and constant prayer; scattered allegorical images; snatches of religious song; the dead, guilty priest in the cellar; a whiff of anchorites and men-children; endless drawings of labyrinths; the dead-child motifs and nests of vipers and heads of pigs; the detective named Loki, with his masonic ring and runic tattoos). Plot gaps and conceits diminish the elemental power of the piece, such as the largely irrelevant insertion of a doomed prowler, and the unlikely escape of one little girl that simply serves as a deus ex machina (and dishes up yet more iridescent red herrings). The Jackman character is debased enough without trying to sucker us into suspecting him of the girls’ abduction, and the ultimate, blundering, villain of the piece stands out like dog’s you-know-whats. These aspects really only succeed in making the film about 30-60 minutes too long.
But we found the mise en scène compelling. Keller is a decent man who chooses (in extremis) to do terrible things. Imprisoning someone is a terrible thing, which is why we confine that privilege to the State and limit its powers in doing so. You might obtain obedience via the infliction of suffering (e.g. 1984) but how can ensure you get the truth from a man by torturing him? And whether that victim is guilty or innocent, how can you ever justify actions you would roundly object to from Authority? These are fundamental matters, and the film neither dodged nor speechified them. The plural usage in the film’s title is significant – and the ending satisfies plot requirements whilst consistent with a qualified measure of mercy for Keller. Despite its faults, it’s a really evocative film, conceived and acted superbly.