The Two-Way Prison of Vigilantism
There's a long list of vigilante films that have received top billing in the hearts and minds of moviegoers around the world. Typically, these films offer brutal yet flimsy excuses to spend two hours showcasing a masculine dude shooting several dozen people (but it's okay, they deserved it!). These movies are successful because they portray their perpetuation of violence as just. Plus they’re just satisfying to watch, I mean who hasn't fantasized about going nuts on somebody who's wronged them? It's rare to see a vigilante film stray from this tried-and-true formula, besides some well known female-lead vigilante films such as Coffy or Hard Candy. Yet, for all of the edginess inherent in the genre, one of the most subversive and chilling vigilante film is actually an anti-vigilante film.
Prisoners (2013) is about the mysterious disappearance of two young girls in rural Pennsylvania. One of the girls is the daughter of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), while the other is the daughter of family friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard). The girls had been seen playing on an RV that was parked on their street earlier that day, so local police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests the RV’s owner after a brief struggle.
The owner of the RV turns out to be a young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who has the IQ of a 10 year old. He appears confused and frightened during police questioning, and nothing is found after forensic testing to his vehicle. Keller, with his daughter still missing and his wife an emotional wreck, becomes increasingly frantic and confronts Alex at the police station upon his release. Alex whispers to him, “they didn’t cry until I left them” and Keller flies into a rage, convinced Alex is indeed the kidnapper. However when Detective Loki refuses to re-arrest him without substantial evidence, Keller decides to secretly take matters into his own hands.
Prisoners is such a viscerally terrifying film. With themes such as kidnapping, loss of power, lost children, brutal torture, and murder, it not only taps into our darkest nightmares but it forces the audience to bear witness to gutting displays of its characters most intimate emotions. Yet, the focus of the film, and what proves to be the most disturbing aspect, is Keller Dover’s desperate desire to not only find his child but to punish whoever took her.
Rarely do vigilante movies linger too long on the ethics of their main character’s actions. For example, Death Wish paints a brutal (and arguably voyeuristic) picture of the initial rape and murder that sets the story into action, but as Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) begins to kill–baring some brief toe-dipping hesitation–his murders are portrayed as adrenaline rushes of glee. His victims are all flatly thuggish and their deaths are about as alarming as watching a flyswatter.
Yet with Prisoners you never see the actual kidnapping; instead, you only see its depressing aftermath in real time. Like Death Wish, Keller is unable to deal with the helpless anguish he feels, and channels that energy into a new purpose: finding and avenging his daughter. Yet, unlike your typical Steven Seagal or Dirty Harry movie, the morality of Keller’s actions is portrayed as being increasingly muddied as he pursues what he believes to be justice. For once you see the agony on the other side of the gun: brutal lingering shots of Keller beating the intellectually disabled Alex to a pulp, attacking him further with a hammer, and eventually encaging him in a makeshift shower stall torture chamber, where he alternates between scalding and freezing Alex with water while also depriving him of food and light.
Keller becomes a litmus test for the audience’s threshold of empathy. His terror is understandable, his desire for revenge is understandable, but as his actions become more violent and underhanded, they become harder to justify. He is introduced as a kind and fair father, but the uncertainties of his daughter’s fate transforms him, not into a hero of justice, but into an almost unrecognizable villain. As the film goes on, Alex’s presumed guilt becomes more and more ambiguous; he has no answers for Keller and it’s unclear if he even fully understands what’s happening. Yet Keller continues to ramp up his torture. He even recruits a reluctant Franklin to help him, promising that this will lead to the truth about their daughters. Eventually the audience begins to realize that perhaps Keller’s bloodlust is being conducted not out of some search for truth, but out of the rush of adrenaline he feels taking out his frustrations on somebody who is unable to fight back. By the time the audience finds out the extent of Alex’s actual involvement in the kidnapping–which, due to his intellectual disabilities, remains somewhat ambiguous–it’s still hard to look on Keller’s actions as having been on the right side of justice.
What I liked most about Prisoners is that it portrays Keller’s impulse for revenge as a purely emotional and reactionary outburst that has little to no effect on the outcome of the actual criminal investigation. By the end of the film Keller’s decision to take matters into his own hands not only hurts innocent people, it also eventually lands both him and his daughter in more immediate danger. He decides to confront the true kidnapper without telling the police, which winds up getting him shot in the leg, and imprisoned in a concealed pit. It’s this sort of futility that truly makes Prisoners so haunting. Had he just allowed the system to work, trusted in Detective Loki’s slow, methodical and yet conclusive crime solving abilities, justice would have been served: his daughter would have been found, he would not have put himself in the criminal position of torturing an arguably innocent young man, and he would not have ended up left for dead in a pit.
It seems to me a deliberate choice on the part of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve to set the film in the United States. It’s also no mistake that these characters live in a rural area and Keller is shown to have a survival bunker in his basement, which he ironically loots to obtain more weapons for torture. When I watched the film in 2013 Keller clearly became a stand in for the Guantanamo era of murky morality; using emotional truthiness as justification for torture in the name of gaining intelligence and revenge. Even now, our current administration’s immigration policies–designed to punish all for the theoretical crimes of a few–seems to still echo the attitude that the system is broken and the only way to receive justice is to circumvent the law. While other vigilante films embrace the satisfying simplicity of do-it-yourself violence, Prisoners portrays this desire as nothing more than a knee-jerk emotional reaction that creates a dangerous ethical rabbit hole. It’s truly a refreshing addition to the genre, considering how it’s such an oppressively terrifying watch otherwise.