One Injustice Makes “Prisoners” of Us All

The worst parts of our adult life arrive when terror sneaks in, when knowledge and control suddenly slip out of our grasp and the “normal” to which we anchor every day disappears.

Prisoners isn’t just a first-rate mystery about the kidnapping of two girls, it’s also a tale about what happens to the parents left behind.

Anna Dover and Joy Birch go missing one rainy evening. An arrest is quickly made by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), but he has to release suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) because the man’s IQ is too low to mastermind the kidnapping.

Anna’s father, Keller (Hugh Jackman), is many things: a survivalist, a religious family man, and a carpenter. That he’s a complex character who doesn’t fit into any Hollywood archetype is a tribute to Jackman and the filmmakers. Even when he kidnaps Jones to tear the information out of him by any means necessary, it’s impossible to judge him. We still root for him.

Combine Gyllenhaal’s youthful appearance and acting opposite an Oscar winner and three other, older nominees, and it’s very easy to forget just how good he is. Loki defies convention, too. He’s a talented detective, hard-working and good at what he does, yet he’s distracted by a cash-strapped police department, a captain who finds it easier to avoid confrontation than deliver a harsh truth, and now he has to find his missing suspect as well as the two girls. You can understand when he pursues misleading clues right past the most obvious ones.

While the mystery is top-notch, there’s a story of faith brewing just under the surface. My favorite story in the Bible was always that of Job – what does a man of faith do when he has everything taken away from him for no reason? Does he maintain his belief at the end? Even religious leaders and scholars can’t tell us for sure. At the end of his debate with God, Job eventually falls silent. His silence can be read two ways. Either Job is rendered speechless before God’s might or, realizing he cannot win the argument before him, he becomes silent as an act of defiance.

Like some of our most brilliant stories, there is no right answer – the right answer is within us. The right answer is what each of us decides Job did, and why. No story so elegantly defines the act of faith. “The Book of Job” hinges on who you want Job to be, on who you want to be yourself. At the end of the day, are you someone who can accept suffering and endure it, or are you so righteous that you’ll stick to your guns no matter what the obstacle? Both are admirable in different ways. I like to think that there’s no right answer – that what makes the story so effective is that life demands a little bit of each. To me, it says that no matter what religion you are, faith is something to which we all aspire. The moment we achieve it, we become righteous and it disappears, so that we have to work at it all over again.

Like all good mysteries, Prisoners has a conclusion that provides us the answers to what really happened. What takes it from being a good film to a great one is that we’re left to write Keller Dover’s ending. Despite his faith, he’s kidnapped a boy because he is certain Jones knows something no one else does. Prisoners finds a brilliant way to take Keller’s fate away from the storytellers and to put it in the hands of each viewer, to make us his judges.

As of the end of September, Prisoners is the movie of the year. Nothing else comes close.

It’s rated R because of the subject matter and disturbing content including torture. It’s honestly no worse than you’ll see on “CSI” or “NCIS.” I’ve been surprised lately that sci-fi movies and family comedies have involved so much violence; what you see in Prisoners is toned down for its subject matter and has a context. It is an intense film, however. I crawled back in my seat. I chewed my nails off. My jaw dropped and I felt a chill up my spine when I realized what the film was really asking me. Prisoners is a film among films. It’s why we go into a dark theater for two hours and say, “Make me believe.”

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