3 Stars — Troubling
The loss of a child is difficult under any circumstances, but when it is by abduction it can unravel a parent's soul. Willing to do anything to find their child safe, it is easy for a parent to lose their moral footing and stumble into a confusing journey where violence is justified as love. The complex moral tale of Prisoners is the brainchild of writer Aaron Guzikowski and impressively brought to the screen by director Denis Villeneuve.
Using the bleak fall landscape that weeps and freezes along with us, the two young girls who are abducted are friends. Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) is the daughter of Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), while Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) is the daughter of Grace (Maria Bello) and Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman).
On a Thanksgiving afternoon while their families are enjoying one another at the Birch home, the girls want to go back to the Dover home to get a special whistle of Anna's. Disregarding their parents' guidance to have their older siblings, Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) and Elza Birch (Zoe Borde) accompany them, it eventually becomes clear that they are missing. Panic sets in as the worst nightmare of a parent becomes a reality.
When police are called, they respond immediately to what are thought to be obvious clues, primarily that of an out-of-place motor home. The lead detective assigned to their case is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). An intense man whose nerves are expressed through his twitching eyes, Loki provides little emotional support as he assures the two families that he will find their daughters. When this promise is not quickly realized, the parents begin to take matters into their own hands.
A mystery with many unexpected twists, the theme of the tale is best expressed by a confessor who seeks a priest to deal with the evil compulsion that has captured his soul. Explaining that he is "waging war with God," he is replicating his own sorrow over his own lost child by taking the children of others in order to destroy their faith and trust in God. This demonic plan is extraordinarily effective, while at the same time showing the conflicted reticence of moral people caught up in an evil horror.
There is no debate that the loss of a child can have a profound impact on the soul of a person. That it strengthens some and debilitates others is also clear. One interesting part of the film is its complex presentation of the Christian father who recites the Lord's Prayer while teaching his son to kill a deer. This juxtaposition is also seen as he prepares for any conceivable danger by stockpiling food and ammunition declaring that he can defend his family against anything that might attack them.
But what is lacking is the presence of any Christian community or pastor's care. Though there is a priest (Len Cariou), he is presented as an alcoholic willing to do evil to stop evil. In real Christian life when tragedy occurs, the family is surrounded by their church community that would help parents face unadulterated evil while keeping connected to God and their true moral selves.
Prisoners is a powerful film with excellent framing, acting, writing and directing. It is also a worthy exploration of the inner beliefs and strengths of people who face the greatest fears of life.
» Every parent imagines what it would be like to have something happen to his or her child. With whom did you identify in this film? How would you have handled such a moment?
» When Grace Dover uses medication to sleep through the horror, she also was not present to help keep her husband grounded. How different do you think the story would have been had she been in conversation with Keller?
» Keller's belief was fostered by his own father that he could be prepared for anything. This false belief helped drive his violent reaction when facing something he could not solve. How do you deal with the reality that all of us will face danger that we cannot prepare for or protect our loved from?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.