Prisoners (2013, directed by Denis Villeneuve)
I've never been entirely sure what the best metaphor is for the aftermath of evil in the world. Do heinous acts leave behind scars? Stains? Echoes? Whatever image you favor, there's no question that evil begets evil, and once that wheel starts turning it can be almost impossible to stop it.
Prisoners, the latest from Incendies director Denis Villeneuve, explores that idea in painful depth, questioning the lengths to which people will go to combat evil when it infects their lives. Two families get torn apart when their young daughters disappear on Thanksgiving. The police quickly apprehend a suspect, a developmentally-challenged young man names Alex (Paul Dano), but when a total lack of evidence forces them to let Alex go the father of one of the girls, Keller (Hugh Jackman), steps in. Convinced that Alex took the girls and consumed by his own grief, Keller kidnaps him and resorts to increasingly desperate measures in an effort to get him to confess and reveal where his daughter is being held. Meanwhile the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), stymied by one dead end after another in an increasingly baffling case now complicated by Alex's sudden disappearance, begins to suspect that something might be amiss with Keller.
You know what? I can't dance around what happens in the movie. Consider this your spoiler warning.
You've been warned.
Keller doesn't 'resort to increasingly desperate measures'. This isn't the goddamned New York Times. He tortures Alex. Beats him until he's unrecognizable, starves him, then eventually constructs a sadistic 'shower' for him in which no light can enter, and the taps (controlled from the outside) run either freezing cold or scalding hot. Keller does this even as the movie slowly and methodically adds more pieces to the puzzle that cast mounting doubt on whether Alex had anything at all to do with the girls' disappearance. To put it simply, as the torture gets more brutal, Alex appears more and more innocent, which makes those scenes of torture almost unbearable to watch.
As a Hollywood thriller, this is first-rate stuff. Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki (yes, really) makes for a great set of eyes through which to view the investigation (whatever his limitations as an actor, Gyllenhaal makes a damn good Everyman, and he actually does some of the best work of his career here) and the script shuffles and scatters the clues around well enough that the big reveal still caught me by surprise.
But what elevates the film above being merely “just another good serial killer movie” (not that we can have too many good serial killer movies) is that exploration of the corrosive effects of evil. A darkness touched Keller's life when his daughter was ripped away from him, and it woke up something equally dark inside of him. The film gives him a fitting back story (an abusive alcoholic father, and a basement that's just a couple cases of beans and a radiation suit shy of being featured on an episode of Doomsday Preppers) but it isn't necessary. Jackman's brooding, intense, frayed performance tells the whole tale about that darkness inside him. It's easily the best work of his career too, and the scenes between him and Gyllenhaal are electric, despairing machismo clashing with weary resignation. And as a metaphor for post-waterboarding America, Prisoners packs an even stronger punch, it that sense owing almost as much of a debt to Zero Dark Thirty as it does to, say, Silence of the Lambs. Keller's decision to torture Alex isn't a particularly calculated one. He thinks the cops are incompetent, and that his daughter's life depends solely on him, and so he'll do whatever he has to in order to save her. But back in the day torture wasn't on the table for the 'good guys'. Torture was what Busey does to Gibson, what Olivier does to Hoffman, and not vice versa. Then 9/11 happened, and then Abu Ghraib happened*, and suddenly what was once unthinkable is very much in play. Keller is a grieving father, a man who clearly loves his family and is a stalwart member of his community. He is, for all intents and purposes, a 'good guy'. But what he does in Prisoners is so far beyond any notion of 'good' that, despite Jackman's fantastic performance and despite that back story, you have to wonder how a 'good' man could even be capable of such acts. Franklin (Terrence Howard), the father of the other missing girl, also provides an uncomfortable counter-point. He's portrayed as the weaker man, one who gets swept up in the wake of Keller's conviction and takes no action of his own, yet he's the one whose conscience eventually gets the better of him. Even then though he merely walks away, neither freeing Alex nor reporting Keller. It's an entirely too believable response to what Franklin's seen, but accepting his decision as the only possible one just makes him, and the audience, complicit in what Keller's doing.
And then, with all that thematic weight and plot momentum going for it... Prisoners blinks. The ending goes Hollywood. The girls are saved, Alex proves to have been involved after all (although, given his child-like mind, it's still hard to say he's in any way “guilty”) and Keller escapes the worst of the consequences of his actions, almost like Dick Cheney re-wrote the last act. It's a disappointing dismount for what was up to that point an astonishing high wire routine. Prisoners is still a good film, 90% of an excellent film really, a movie filled with tremendous performances and indelible scenes, but the ending felt way, way off to me. It would have seemed far better, far truer, to leave Keller in his hole to bleed to death, desperately blowing his daughter's whistle but with no one around to hear it, rather than give him an implausible rescue (even if, after being rescued, he's going to jail. I hope. Then again, what jury in the world would convict him?)
Sigh. Don't mind me. I'm just one of those lunatics who thinks war crimes should result in trials and stuff, and that some acts are unforgivable and unpardonable. Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.
* - Yes, I'm deliberately ignoring the appearance of Jack Bauer and 24 on TV screens mere weeks after the towers fell, which certainly played a big role in pushing the envelope when it comes to torture's semi-acceptance. But an entire thesis could, and probably has, been written on the subject.