It’s never just about how the murder was committed or where the missing person went or who stole the precious moonstone. The detective stories that really resonate are the ones that investigate beneath the case itself and into the deeper mysteries of who we are. The ones that delve into the invisible mechanisms of our societies, the inner clockwork of our selves.
Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is about two girls gone missing and a father desperate to retrieve them. It’s also about how to make sense of a world that can be rendered senseless by atrocity at any moment. It’s about the need to search for answers and the fact that there might not always be any, or that the answers we find may provide no comfort, no meaning. It’s about the way in which all our lives are detective stories, quests to piece together the evidence as best we can so that we can understand why things are the way they are. It’s about what happens when these efforts fall short.
Detective Fiction first emerged out of the Victorian era, brought into the world by the likes of Willkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, and born out of a worldview that was inherently orderly. The rapid scientific advances of the age produced a swell of confidence in mankind’s ability to blueprint the workings of the world. This preceded from the assumption that the world had a blueprint, that this implied a blueprint-maker, and that mankind (and more precisely the white-skinned portion of mankind living in Christian Britain) was at its centre. The Victorian universe was arranged in concentric circles of precisely maintained moral order, flowing out from a British home kept neatly in check by the Angel of the House and headed by her strong, patriarchal husband.
The home was contained within the nation itself, whose rapid industrialisation was a testament to Britain’s ordained superiority and whose blend of emerging capitalism and fading feudalism formed a society with a proper place for everybody and which kept everyone forcefully in their place. The nation was contained within an empire that imposed its values across the globe, taking on the White Man’s Burden to bring the rest of humanity in line. The globe across which the empire sprawled hung at the centre of a cosmos which was presided over by a benevolent Christian God, the grandfatherly clockmaker who ensured everything ticked along just exactly as it was supposed to.
Everything from the organisation of the family pantry to the governance of entire continents was seen as the manifestation of a higher order, a clear plan progressing in orderly fashion towards an ultimate goal.
Nowhere was this vision of the Godly cleanliness more powerfully represented than by the tidy order and domestic bliss of the British country home, so naturally this became the setting for most of the era’s detective plots. Each story began with some outside force interrupting the natural order and throwing things into disarray. Enter the charismatic detective, armed only with the era’s esteemed power of empirical thought, to uncover the problem, unmask the perpetrator, and return everything to its rightful place.
As we are introduced to Prisoners’ protagonist Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), we see the same basic premise of the classic detective story relocated to modern day America. In today’s world, the Victorian country house in England makes way for the suburban home in America. White picket fences and fresh mowed lawns symbolise healthy, wholesome family life. These are the preserve of the good, honest Americans found in the Goldilocks zone above the crassness and crime of the “working class” but below the decadence and deviance of the “elites”. These are the homes of “regular” people who go to church on Sundays and salute the flag and have family meals around the table and throw footballs in the yard. Theirs is the America of “family values” and “simpler times”, a fantasy they have fled the stark, uncomfortable realities of the cities to enact.
Keller embodies these values so completely that his wife jokes that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is his favourite song. He knows his neighbours, loves his wife, and watches carefully over his children. He works as a handymen, humbly repairing the things that have become worn out, patching the world back together through clear planning and hard work. He is a law-abiding citizen, a helpful member of his community, an attentive family man. He has built his identity according to his culture’s standards of a “good man” and labours each day to maintain it.
But he is also a man of his time and so his vision of the world has been effected by the daily news cycles of rape and murder, war and corruption. Even as he arranges his life into a sunny diorama of the American Dream, he is deeply aware of how much there is to fear beyond the borders of his picket fence. This darker understanding lurks literally beneath the Dover family home’s cheerful surface: a basement filled with the weaponry, rations and tools to endure any imaginable crisis. Every moment of the day, while they sit around the table for Sunday lunch or on the couch watching TV or sleep cosily in their beds at night, this survivalist backup plan lies beneath them. The family home Keller works tirelessly to pay for and maintain, the safe, comfortable world he has constructed: deep down Keller believes it all to be so fragile that he has made himself ready to bundle his loved ones beneath the ground and fortify them against the world at a moment’s notice.
Though his lifestyle is informed by a more fearful vision of the world, Keller’s basic philosophy is essentially Victorian. He sees the world around him as a great and complex machine which, so long as he is sufficiently prepared with the right tools, parts and plans to hand, he will always be able to fix. Whatever problems arise, he is certain that the rigid application of logic and hard work will be enough to solve them. He sees an essential order in things, just as the Victorians did, and is confident of his ability to re-instate it so long as he is prepared.
When a man was killed within a locked room or the precious jewels vanished overnight, the consequences of this to the Victorian mindset went far beyond the pain caused to the crime’s immediate victims. They served as an attack upon the idea of people as inherently decent, of an essential moral order that was the universe’s status quo. When the detective solved the case, he was not just returning the purloined goods to their rightful owner or ensuring the murderer was brought to trial, but revealing that the basic machinery of the universe which kept everything in order was still there, still perfectly operational once this momentary malfunction was corrected. He assured them that the world was as they understood it, that it was essentially good and safe, that justice prevailed.
For all his gruffness, his fearful obsession with the ways in which crisis might strike, his compulsive need to prepare, Keller essentially adheres to a Fox News-tinted version of this worldview.
When his daughter disappears, he immediately suspects Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex is an adult with the IQ and mannerisms of a ten-year-old child. To Keller, this marks him as an outsider, an outlier in his rigidly systematised world, a van-driving “creep” like the ones he has heard about on TV. He is Keller’s opposite: childlike where Keller is stoically adult, dependant upon his relatives where Keller is provider and protector of his family, odd where Keller works fastidiously to meet the standards of respectable normality.
When the police clear Alex, still convinced he’s the kidnapper, Keller abducts him, locks him in the bathroom of a disused home and interrogates him with a violence that becomes steadily more elaborate and severe. “Why won’t you tell me?!” he screams into Alex’s face while he ties him to a chair. “Tell me!” he screams as he batters him again and again. “Tell me!” he screams as Alex spits blood, squeals for help, sobs hysterically. “Tell me!” he screams as tears run down his own face, his eyes wide with desperation, horror at what he is doing and sheer incomprehension that what he’s doing is not working.
Within that bathroom, we see Keller torture Alex’s body and his own soul. He thrashes Alex’ face while carving pieces out of his own self-image as a good man, bludgeoning both of them with every blow, tearing at the values he has worked every day to uphold. He wants nothing more than to stop, to be released from this hell and returned to his calm, gentle life, but he needs to find his daughter and he is so sure that this will work. It has to work. Everything he understands about the world tells him that Alex is the kidnapper. Everything he understands about the world tells him that a person will act to protect themselves from pain. So he repeats the same action, over and over again, eyes alight with a madman’s hope of producing a different result.
Of course, Keller is not mad. His basically moral, mechanical vision of the world is simply unable to account for the situation he finds himself in. Keller knows that there are bad people in the world, his understanding can stretch to those who would abduct innocent children. But a bad person still has self-interest, a basic desire to avoid harm, so he cannot understand the abductor refusing to talk once they have nothing to gain, much less once talking is the only way for them to put an end to excruciating pain. The world is logical, moving parts with clear functions. People are logical, moving according to clear purposes. The only logical thing for Alex to do is tell him where his daughter is. Keller is sure he understands the equation to his situation and yet the solution refuses to present itself, no matter how painstakingly he works it over, again and again.
His interrogation culminates in the construction of a shower cubicle that locks Alex into a standing positions beneath a downpour that is alternately scalding and freezing. The practical, mechanical skills with which he has learned to solve problems have been applied to their fullest. As he explains what he has built, idly turning the tap to demonstrate its function, the wildness has gone from his gaze. After who knows how many hours of sadistic torment, his eyes have deadened. He has steadily, mechanically, precisely obliterated his own soul. His eyes are empty now, murky windows onto nothing.
His mechanical vision of the world has morphed him into a Kafka-esque machine, turning cruelly, purposelessly, and with great precision.
Keller’s vision of the world cannot accommodate someone whose very mental functions make them immune to reasoning or bargaining, someone who does not understand why this is being done to him, someone who can be frightened into saying anything or saying nothing regardless of the “incentives” offered. Alex fits Keller’s narrative of the culprit so well that he cannot see him as a victim. Little girls are victims, to be protected at all costs. Men are responsible for their actions, either as protectors or threats. Alex’s awkward, unmanly behaviour reads to him as sinister, rather than damaged. He sees him only as a threat to the rigidly maintained normality of his world, an outside force to be vanquished, not understood.
The film’s secondary protagonist, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is introduced to us exactly as the hero of a detective classic would be. He arrives on the scene fully formed and with his reputation preceding him; the maverick genius who has never failed to solve a case, the oddball ace card to be called upon in times of dire need. A bit of a loner, the rest of the police force treats him with a mixture of respect and distrust, in awe of his results but disturbed by his process. The characterisation is completed by a few aesthetic eccentricities to set him apart from the milling crowds and mediocre minds of mainstream society: in place of Holmes’ deerhunter or Poirot’s moustache, Loki is marked by tattoos on his neck and a devilish undercut.
If Keller’s mind is that of a Victorian detective, an ethical repairman looking to return society’s machinery to working order through rigorous ratiocination, Loki is drawn from a later part of the detective genre’s genealogy. After the cheerful clue-hunters of Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle came the hard-boiled gumshoes of Raymond Chandler and co. These trench-coated figures reflect
ed a world whose teleological understanding of itself has been shattered by the horrors of a world at war. They were shady figures who sustained themselves on cigarettes, black coffee. and cheap bourbon. Their world was grey and they had no hope of setting it to rights, only of cleaning a little of the muck out of their own small, squalid corner of it. After them came the anti-detectives of Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster, hopelessly chasing after lost meaning in a depthless postmodern sea of signs and signifiers, a place where there was no truth to uncover and no means to uncover it, anyway. Loki sits somewhere in between these two stages of character evolution, the missing link who teeters between hope and hopelessness, waiting on the fateful case that shoves him finally in one direction.
Sitting alone in an all-night diner the first time we spy him, Gylenhaal is once again cast as a nightcrawler, a creature who belongs to the darkness and all the danger it cloaks. This is the primary difference between him and Keller, who lives in the bright, sunlit realm of propriety, neighbourly conduct and good intentions. Keller belongs to the world as it presents itself, Loki to the darker nature beneath. Keller knows that this darkness exists, but only through the counterfeited images of his TV screen, the sinister whispers of news reports and urban legends. He hasn’t seen it, felt it, or lived amongst it. Because of this, he cannot really imagine it. Loki, however, can.
Loki has spent his career digging deep into the “dirt” to uncover people’s most horrific truths. He has seen enough, first hand, to know the nature of the world that Keller cannot see. The boundaries of his imagination have been widened by the horrors he has witnessed: crimes without reason, acts of pure brutality which achieved nothing, which sought to achieve nothing. Keller believes that with the right tools he will be able to fix life’s machinery and return it to its logical, moral order. Loki has pierced just enough of the darkness to know that there was no order to begin with. Most of what is done in the dark is never brought to the light. Loki can only point a flashlight into the abyss in the hope of catching a glimpse of a slither of truth here and there. He doesn’t look for greater meaning, as he knows he won’t find any.
Loki quickly dismisses Alex as the culprit because he has seen enough to know how a human being could be rendered into such a pitiful state, the things beyond Keller’s imagination. Because he is strange, childlike, and “wrong”, Keller has to assign Alex the role of the villain to keep his world order intact. With no such moral order to preserve, Loki can see him as someone who has been abused and largely broken: no monster, just the shuffling product of suffering.
Both Loki and Keller eventually make their way towards the true kidnapper, Alex’s “aunt” Holly (Melissa Leo), but the manner in which they do, and the consequences they face once they arrive, are dictated by their perceptions. After the other kidnapped girl re-appears and claims Keller “was there” during her imprisonment, he flees and heads towards Holly’s home. He believes that the girl may have heard his voice when he visited Holly to gather information about Alex. Alex remains fixed in his mind as the perpetrator because he remains convinced that the threat must be someone who lies outside his idea of normalcy, someone who diverges from the norms wrought from goodness. He never considers that Holly could be the villain because she is part of his community, she is like him: neighbourly, polite, normal. He believes that people are what they seem, that the creep is the kidnapper and the seemingly nice old lady is a nice old lady. He believes that the cosy, humble family home in which the sweet old woman cares for her nephew couldn’t possibly have a prison beneath it.
Because of these preconceptions, Holly gets the drop on him and leaves him to die in the same hole where she held his daughter captive.
Loki finds Holly’s door at the end of a trail of atrocities. His investigation leads him to the home of a local priest and his instincts lead him to look beneath its surface. He finds the corpse concealed in its cellar where he knows to look beyond the old man’s white collar and kindly veneer. He can identify the victim as Holly’s husband because he knows that a simple family man can harbour sins dark enough to drive a holy man to murder. He is able to piece together that Alex’s “Aunt and Uncle” are in fact his kidnappers because he knows that the patient, caring people who help to ease a young man’s trauma can also be the ones who inflicted it. So he arrives at Holly’s door with her true face clearly in sight, her mask of wearied innocence rendered transparent by eyes trained to see clearly in even the darkest of conditions.
He discovers that Holly and her husband lost a child to cancer many years prior and vowed to wage a war against God in response. They stole Alex and let him live as a replacement for their lost boy, then stole and killed countless other children in acts of spiteful vengeance against God. Their war imagines no conceivable victory, there’s nothing to be achieved through their violence. These are acts of pure rage, trauma channelled into terror, broken souls lashing out against the world, screams into the silent void that swallowed up their prayers. What they do is illogical, without purpose, and beyond reason or morality. What they’ve done is beyond Keller’s reality, beyond the world he can imagine or understand. It’s a kind of evil which exists beyond the boundaries of his known universe. His basement is filled with the things he will need to protect his family against all the known dangers of the world, but his preparations fall short because it’s simply impossible for him to envisage a danger of this kind. He is attacked from a moral blindspot, one he didn’t know he had. Unable to see the danger ahead of him, he succumbs to it.
Loki is different. Lokis has spent his career uncovering works of mindless evil, acts of savagery enacted with no end goal, no reason. Having experienced this kind of thing before, he’s prepared for it. He doesn’t go blundering blindly into the vipers’ nest as Keller does, but arrives purposefully, fully prepared for the danger that awaits him.
I saw Prisoners for the first time during its theatrical run in September of 2013, and for the second time several years later. On seeing it again, I realised that I had slightly misremembered a single, small detail in the film’s final scene which alters the meaning tremendously. As a result, I now hold two versions of the ending in my head.
In the first, the “alternate ending” my mind accidentally constructed through inaccurate recollection, Loki stands outside Holly’s house the day after he has confronted her, bested her in a gunfight and rescued Keller’s daughter in the nick of time. The property is being excavated, torn apart in the morbid hope of uncovering all of the secret horrors it holds. One worker admits to Loki that they will probably never find half of what has been hidden. Unknowingly, Loki stands directly above the place where Keller is trapped. As the excavation team packs up for the night, the camera lingers on Loki, unaware of what we know and unable to rescue Keller because of it. As the camera lingers, the film plays one final dark joke on its viewers, a final piece of dramatic irony to twist the knife once more before the credits roll. For all his powers of detection, Loki will not be able to find Keller in time. Another life will be lost because the world is too vast and the darkness too deep for even the keenest mind to truly comprehend its workings. Chaos prevails, another person dies due to ignorance, to chance, and his death holds no meaning.
The element erased by my rememberance, the all-important alteration, was the sound of a whistle that I had forgotten in the final scene. It’s a sound so faint it’s barely audible. It’s the emergency whistle that Keller had his daughter carry with her, which she leaves in the pit, and he finds. As Loki stands above him, we faintly hear it and watch a minute reaction ripple across Loki’s face as he does too. All of Keller’s diligence, his preparation and determination to protect his family has yielded something after all. Even when all the darkness and pain he has waded through has led him only to this pitch black prison, when he has been left to die, broken and alone and torn apart by his failure to protect his family, even still he refuses to give up. His discipline and resilience have him him blowing on the whistle in the face of hopeless odds. This combines with Loki’s own determination, undaunted by the countless horrors he has seen, and his continued belief that he can solve some of the mysteries of an endlessly mysterious world; his belief that they are worth solving. So many terrible things have happened and so many will continue to, but this time his efforts will be enough to save a life. That whistle, so faint it is almost lost in the wind, means that a father will be returned home to hug his children, that his wife will lie beside him in bed again, that their family has not been irreparably torn. That order is restored.
Prisoners remains a dark film. Like many in the long lineage of suburban-set horror tales, it focuses on the danger that lies beneath the most familiar surfaces, the latent crises which can be unleashed upon us at a moment’s notice without warning, without reason. But, in its final moments, it also offers a little light. Not a lot, just a pin-prick ray peeking through a vast black canvas, the tiny point of a detective’s flashlight as he aims it unflinchingly into the endless night. Being prepared, committed, determined, intelligent, compassionate: none of these things can guarantee protection from the malevolence of a disinterested universe or the cruel machinations of broken societies or the myriad warped minds that roam them. Sometimes crisis will strike and we will have nothing with which to defend ourselves. But sometimes our efforts will be enough. Sometimes we can snatch a soul back from the brink, sometimes we can unravel the mystery in time, sometimes we can repair the machine just well enough to keep on living. There is no inherent order, no guiding force to keep us safe and no benevolent hand to harbour us from danger. But sometimes we can save each other.