Allegory—and this is a considerable bit of understatement—is a tricky business, and it’s only getting trickier all the time. In earlier generations, extended riffs on totalitarian communism (Animal Farm) and the Red Scare (The Crucible) worked on their own considerable literary merits, to the point that they’ve become canon. Yet it’s getting harder and harder to find that sweet spot where an audience clearly understands what you’re trying to say yet doesn’t feel that they’ve been bludgeoned about the face and neck with a Very Important Message About Society.
Prisoners gets off to a rough start in that regard literally from its first scene. QuebeÃ§ois director Denis Villeneuve (the 2011 Oscar nominee Incendies)—making his studio debut—pulls back slowly on Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his teenage son (Dylan Minnette) preparing to shoot a deer in the Pennsylvania woods while reciting a prayer. A few moments later, an RV drives by playing the gospel pop tune “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” A few moments after that, Villeneuve pulls focus to show the cross hanging from the rearview mirror of Keller’s pickup truck. And at several other points for the next 2 1/2 hours, Prisoners makes sure you’re not about to forget that this is God’s country, full of God-fearing people and also, they believe in God.
The plot kicks into gear when, on a Thanksgiving night, Keller and his wife Grace’s (Maria Bello) 7-year-old daughter and her best friend—the daughter of the Dovers’ neighbors, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch—disappear from their street. There’s a suspect almost immediately—Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the simple-minded driver of that aforementioned RV—but the investigating officer, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is unable to find any physical evidence, and is forced to release Alex. But that doesn’t mean Keller isn’t willing to take matters into his own hands, even if that means abducting and torturing Alex to find out what happened to the girls.
What follows is essentially a parallel-but-overlapping narrative: Loki investigating various leads and seeming dead-ends in the case, and Keller—assisted by a reluctant Franklin—carrying out his enhanced interrogation of Alex. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) intend for this scenario to evoke. “We hurt him until he talks, or they’re gonna die,” Keller rationalizes to Franklin; “he stopped being a person when he took them.” Turning his abandoned old childhood apartment into a backwoods Gitmo, Keller subjects Alex to various punishments—bagging his head, stress positions, water torture—until we’re fairly certain that Alex will eventually reveal where bin Laden is hiding.
Once that allegory is punctuated with several dozen exclamation points—along with the accompanying question of whether we lose our soul when we’re willing to do such things even for seemingly very good reasons, which, hint hint, the answer is yes—all that remains is hoping that Villeneuve and company carry out the gritty thriller elements with some skill. And, at times, they’re quite skillful indeed, building tense chases and showdowns into an effectively complex puzzle regarding what actually happened to those two girls, and grounding the action in solidly earthy performances by Jackman and Gyllenhaal.
But things start to veer off track in the final hour, as Prisoners piles on the plot turns, complications and coincidences that link everything into one grand conspiracy of evil, with hints of Se7en in its bleak suggestion that there’s nothing easier than getting someone to abandon his principles. Characters start to behave in ways that feel merely plot-convenient, and that 153-minute running time starts to feel like a punishment, considering how early the film says virtually everything it has to say about our capacity to justify vigilante brutality.
The fact that the film has the capacity to keep you shuddering in the moment may be testimony to a certain degree of visceral effectiveness, but those gut reactions keep colliding with the bitter taste of its repetitive moralizing. In fact, maybe it said everything it had to say with that first scene of the deer hunt 150 minutes earlier: that violence is still violence even if it’s committed with a prayer in your heart.
Here endeth the allegory.
Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano