Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons
US theatrical: 20 Sep 2013 (General release)
UK theatrical: 27 Sep 2013 (General release)
“It’s embarrassing, all this fuss.” Grace (Maria Bello) turns away from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), suggesting—hoping—that “all this fuss” will lead to a wholly unexpected ending. Loki peers at her, trying not to, wondering if she really means she believes that her six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and her friend Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) have run away, and that they’re not abducted, as everyone else—himself included—has assumed.
When Grace begins to cry, Loki has his answer, sort of. The girls are taken, not wandered off, and it’s his job to find them. Apparently, in Prisoners, it’s his job alone, for in the grim Pennsylvania town where he and Grace live, she with her rough-hewn, mostly decent-seeming husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) and he with… you’ll never know. Loki is at once the film’s central cypher and moral beacon, deeply dedicated and also damaged (he lets on how and why later during the film’s over-explanatory proceedings). He has no home life that you see, only work, which consists of being the sole cop assigned to the missing girls case.
This means he hunts, discovers, and interrogates suspects, venturing into dark nights and darker basements alone, his flashlight held high, illuminating narrow shafts of hallways and sometimes, sharp planes of faces. The horrors that Loki finds are sometimes upsetting but also mundane, as when Grace weeps or Keller explodes, and sometimes ghastly and weird, as when he comes on a collection of bloody children’s clothes packed in boxes with snakes, or the specter of a desiccated dad man tied to a chair, apparently for years.
No matter what he sees, though, Loki maintains something like a fixed expression, and when it’s not so fixed, its shifting is slow. As an observer, and even as an interrogator, Loki is strangely enthralling, tattooed and awkward, introduced as he eats Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant. Where Keller tends to histrionics, a survivalist and recovering alcoholic enraged to feel helpless (“You made me feel safe,” accuses Grace, “You told us you could protect us from everything”), Loki stands back, at the edge of a frame or in a doorway, his white shirt buttoned to the top and probably too tight. His seeming discomfort doesn’t put anyone at ease; the parents—including Joy’s dad and mom, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis)—look at him with questions in their eyes, and his perfectly puffy-faced captain (Wayne Duvall), doesn’t ask very many, as Loki has solved every case he’s been assigned.
Loki doesn’t flash this record so much as he assumes it. He means to solve every case, and he makes promises accordingly, even when you know he can’t keep them. When his captain releases a suspect, the stereotypically pasty manchild Alex Jones (Paul Dano), without maintaining surveillance of him, Loki is flat-out angry, not even a little inclined to defer to authority. “I need to know where everybody is,” he decalres, and his boss nods, sheepish over his mistake. You know he does, as he’s essentially you here, the film’s ideal viewer, who knows or intuits just enough to make you not believe what you think you’re seeing, but instead to trust him.
Loki’s job is to know. Someone knows the whereabouts of the missing girls, and he must find out whom. Loki’s investigation takes him to the sorts of places you might expect, isolated houses and abandoned apartment buildings, on rainy nights and bleak mornings. Here, however, knowing takes different forms. Where Loki is skeptical and painstaking, frustrated but knows too that frustration can give way to solution. Keller, by contrast, is all hotheaded fury. When the cops release the miserably inarticulate, RV-driving suspect Alex (whom the police describe as having the IQ of Keller presumes his guilt—“I know he knows, I can see it in his eyes”—and then he also becomes guilty, taking and torturing Alex.
Keller’s monstrosity produces prolonged moments of doubt and dismay, for him and for you. If his war-on-terroristic response may be comprehensible, it also remains utterly reprehensible (as well as finally, weirdly, nearly justified by the revelation). Prisoners does make the case that abuse produces abuse, that monsters are not only born, but shaped. Adult monsters were once children, traumatized by the very figures—institutions and individuals—who might have been supposed to protect or at least salvage them. The film devises a community of abusers and victims, intimately interrelated, never disentangled, children changed by adults, adults turned into children, all prisoners of their pasts and their fears, and most especially, of their determination to change their futures.
The trouble with Prisoners is a familiar one. Too much like Mystic River, as well as Gone Baby Gone and Ransom or even Taken and The Lovely Bones, its primary moral questions have to do with faulty individual decisions, usually fathers and cops who make mistakes and so, rather than fixing or protecting any given situation, instead initiate cascades of dread and cruelty. As vigilantes and victims seek redress or at least some sense of order. That no order might be found might seem a cosmic sort of punchline, but the movie doesn’t press you to worry or to rethink assumptions. You can feel horror at the snakes and the bloody socks and the distress of older siblings left to watch their parents dissolving into abjection. But you don’t have to worry about your part in the process, your responsibility for those missing and hurt but also those who are hurt in front of you.