By Jacob Mertens.
Moral relativism can make for a lousy film. Characters bark and growl about their actions being justified, the narrative halts to brood, the nature of God and sin are clumsily introduced, all for an elusive truth that might as well be out of the filmmakers’ reach. To this point, philosopher John Mackie once wrote that moral values are essentially nonexistent, an apparition, stating “It is a hard fact that cruel actions differ from kind ones, and hence we learn […] to distinguish them fairly well in practice, and to use words ‘cruel’ and ‘kind’ with fairly clear descriptive meanings; but is it an equally hard fact that actions which are cruel in such a descriptive sense are to be condemned?” The idea behind this query lends to the fact that nothing in this world can be objective—there are no objective truths—and so an objective moral stance can be seen as little more than a useful fabrication, “ascribed [as] part of the furniture of the world.”¹ This agreed upon fabrication is integral to giving life balance and order, but when a man’s daughter has been kidnapped and a code of ethics hinders the progress of her rescue, a human element comes into play and the question of right and wrong is supplanted with ‘how far would you go to save your daughter?’
In Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, a pair of girls go missing one chill, winter evening. Besides sinister soundtrack clues that key in on their disappearance, the film handles the calm before tragedy well. A group of parents drink wine and exchange light-hearted banter, their children leave to play on their own, and these moments are followed by a few eerie, empty frames. Later, when the young girls cannot be found, it takes precious moments before worry and panic sets in; then their fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), chase through the neighborhood looking for them, fighting the pull of hysterics, holding on to the notion that the girls may just be hiding somewhere. But Keller’s older son saw a strange RV parked in the neighborhood, heard someone inside listening to music, and suspicion leads to a call to the police. From here, a familiar procedural pursuit takes over, and the two shell-shocked families share screen time with the anti-social but astute Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Paradoxically, Prisoners excels when it decides to be an average thriller. The detective, who has been saddled with an unfortunate name and a penchant for nervous blinking, still comes across as raw and genuine: a man whose misanthropic demeanor contrasts well with an underlying need to protect people. When Loki holds the screen alone, the film thrills with brilliant action set pieces and sequences thrumming with suspense. In particular, there is an exhilarating scene in which Loki drives reckless through the falling snow, at night, with blood dripping into his eye and someone dying in his backseat—desperate to reach the hospital even as the streets blur and become little more than abstract art. All thrilling moments aside though, Prisoners sadly remains a dull exercise in “important” filmmaking. If only Keller Dover wasn’t in the picture, or was cast differently, this review might have ended quite differently. But the man stubbornly remains part of the story, and as he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the police investigation, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
The linchpin for Dover’s moral degradation, or at the very least moral dilemma, is a young man named Alex Jones, played by the ever-fascinating and tragically underused Paul Dano. Jones is captured by police after being found in the RV several hours after the girls had vanished; he is released two days later due to lack of evidence and the discovery that he has the IQ of a 10-year-old (not exactly the makings of a criminal mastermind). Dover puffs up his chest, unable to see past the bread crumbs of circumstantial evidence, and assaults the young man just as he is being returned into the custody of his aunt. As Detective Loki rushes to restrain him, Jones whispers to Dover that “they didn’t cry until I left them.” Of course, no one else hears this over Dover screaming bloody murder. A few scenes later, Dover has kidnapped the disturbed Alex Jones, has handcuffed him to the sink of a bathroom in an abandoned, dilapidated house left to him by family. Dover has a bag of tools at hand, a makeshift domestic torture kit, and he is more than happy to hurt Jones until he talks.
Forget for a moment that besides Detective Loki and Keller Dover, no one in this film has anything of note to do; that Dover brings Franklin Birch to his torture house just so the man can blanch and hold Alex Jones up as Dover pummels him, dipping his big toe in the pool of nihilism while Dover splashes in the deep end; or that Dover’s wife Grace, played by the talented Maria Bello, spends the entire film in a drug-induced haze, unable to cope with the loss of her daughter. If Prisoners is taken on the merit of its two protagonists, it finds momentum with Loki’s investigation but with Dover only an absurd stall. The man gets nowhere with Jones and leaves him a bloody rag doll, bolstering Villeneuve’s agenda to take the adage of “ends justifying the means” to its conceptual breaking point. Clearly, these scenes of torture, underscored by Dover quoting the same trite biblical passage over and over, are meant to give this thriller an air of sophistication. After all, now the disappearance of the girls must mean something more, yes? Because now we can question our own nature, how far we would go to save someone we loved.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with making a film like this, other than that it is exceptionally difficult to do well and takes a certain ambition to try for it. And for the record, Villeneuve fails at this task. Too often Prisoners is ruled by a fundamentally flawed character, matched by a flawed performance, and all the well-made scenes in the film sink for the weight of it. In order to take a decent stab at a philosophical quandary that has no right answer, because the whole point is that it’s concerning subjective moral boundaries, you at least need a character who can feel something nuanced like shame. Hugh Jackman, for all his winning qualities, is out of his depth here. He plays Dover like a rock, unmoved by the world around him, convinced to delusion in his own steadfast integrity. When this world view is challenged, his mood quickly shifts into an inconsolable rage. As a defense-mechanism this is pretty realistic, and so for most this constitutes superb acting. But there’s nothing underneath these polar extremes, no nagging apprehension that would give the film a legitimate claim to the commentary it seeks.
The only doubt Dover ever admits to in the film is manufactured artificially by quoting scripture and getting drunk. These actions alone mean nothing, they are screenplay markers waiting for a performance to breathe in some life. Instead, Villeneuve and Jackman take them for granted and treat the concessions as brief footnotes (in case you were looking for more evidence of Keller Dover’s complicated humanity, please see the appendix at the back). I would have preferred Terrence Howard in the lead role, because then we could see a change in the character, we could see how the actions harden him. Dover’s too hard from the start, and if his questionable actions are fueled by guilt for letting his daughter out of his sight, it doesn’t show and there’s nothing beyond our suppositions to substantiate the notion either. Ultimately, Villeneuve’s film ends up taking moral relativity a step to far, and in seeking ethical extremes Prisoners loses focus on what matters most. Namely, what becomes of the man who pushes past questions of right and wrong for one selfish, righteous goal? Naturally, he is lost. But if he never was there from the start, then what is the audience left with?
I’ll tell you what, furniture.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
¹Ehtics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin Books, 1977)