A thousand things can go wrong in a kidnapping investigation, and “Prisoners” goes through about 100 of them before you lose count. After that it’s easy to blackout under the chokehold of desperation that defines both the film and its protagonist, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman).
The film begins with a Thanksgiving meal shared by two families, a holiday get-together which has long been a ritual. Everything is the picture of normalcy, until that horrible moment when the parents realize their 7-year-old daughters — Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) — are missing.
In an instant, Keller’s expression changes from mild worry to absolute panic. Throughout the film, director Denis Villeneuve composes his shots in such a way that Keller’s face is almost always present. We slowly understand that whatever the outcome of this tragedy may be, Keller will never celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way again.
The film belongs to Keller and Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective leading the investigation. Early on, he tells Keller: “Just let me do my job.” And with good reason — Keller seems strangely knowledgeable of how the police proceed in such cases, and insists on participating. “Time, time, we don’t have time!” Keller yells, aware of the colossal importance of the first 24 hours in any missing-persons case. Every passing minute lowers the chances their daughters will come back alive.
As the hours melt away, Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) descends through states of confusion and agony, while Keller makes the shift from a (seemingly) ordinary family man to an enraged sadist who will stop at nothing to find the missing girls.
When the police arrest Alex Jones (Paul Dano) — an obvious suspect — but later release him due to lack of evidence (Alex is also mentally impaired), Keller takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps and tortures Alex for days, seeking details about the location of Anna and Joy, spinning further out of control as he takes Joy’s reluctant father Frank (Terrence Howard) with him on this descent into hell. And still the minutes tick by with no news, little in the way of clues and no confession from Alex.
“Prisoners” is gripping on many levels, but as Hiroto Kaijima — a Japanese journalist who specialized in violent incidents within the family — says during a phone interview: “It’s a story that asks parents how far they would go to protect their children. I don’t think many fathers are ready to go as far as Keller did. They just can’t take that leap, but then I think very few men can. It doesn’t mean they love their children any less than Keller.”
In Japan, over 4,100 children under the age of 18 are currently reported missing — which is a fraction of the number in the U.S. but still a jarring statistic considering the nation’s relatively low crime rate.
Kaijima says “Prisoners” piqued his interest because it reminded him of a case back in 1991 when a 7-year-old girl was taken from her home in Fukushima Prefecture as she lay sleeping between two friends. One of the main suspects was a houseguest present during the kidnapping — the boyfriend of a relative. He was called in for questioning by the police but immediately released, since there was no evidence of the girl being held anywhere in his vicinity. The father, however, was convinced of the boyfriend’s guilt and quit his job to trail and harass the suspect. But in the end, “it became too exhausting and damaging for the father,” according to Kaijima. And now, 23 years later, the case remains unsolved.
“The appeal of ‘Prisoners’ (in Japan) is its focus on the family,” says Kaijima. “The Japanese are very sensitive about that and to the father figure who will protect his children at all cost. That tendency has become stronger since 3/11; people want to believe their parents or families will be there for them in times of danger.”
In the U.S., film critics were more concerned with the methods used by Keller in the name of justice and parental love. Kate Thompson wrote on Examiner.com that the film “endorses torture while distributing God’s forgiveness for the demons within us.” That’s a strong accusation, but it also rings true — Keller is a Christian and murmurs the Lord’s Prayer in his darkest moments. On the other hand, Keller tells Alex that all the torture and pain is his own fault, that he’s bringing it on himself because he won’t talk.
Had Alex been on the same level of intelligence as Keller, this argument might have made more sense, but the man has the IQ of a child, with a mind permanently scarred by childhood trauma of his own. Keller, however, refuses to take such obvious facts into consideration. Alex looks guilty, or at least seems to know something that will point to the kidnapper. For Keller, that’s enough of a reason to justify brutality.
Kaijima points out that “there is a great divide between people who have children and people who don’t. Naturally, parents will relate more to Keller’s actions, without necessarily agreeing with him. They will have more scope for understanding.”
In the meantime, Loki reassembles the puzzle pieces and just as he said in the beginning, tries to do his job — one painful step at a time. “Prisoners” isn’t a morality story (though it could benefit from a little moralizing); instead it boils down to a war of methodology. Which of the two men will arrive at the truth in time to save the girls? One thing is clear: Neither will return from this unharmed.