I’m a fan of Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, but I went to Prisoners reluctantly. It looked like Taken only with more of an exploratory moral conscience. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know it’s dark, as the two aforementioned actors play fathers whose daughters go missing. But I’ll argue that you have no idea how dark it really is: we’re dealing here with the problem of evil in a way that I haven’t seen on screen since Se7en…and that movie scared me like crazy.
Keller (Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) Dover join Franklin (Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch for Thanksgiving, and by the end of the evening, no one can find their two, young daughters. The police, under the leadership of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), quickly zero in on Alex Jones (Paul Dano, another superb actor), who has communication issues and lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo). As the police investigation stalls out, Keller takes the matters, Jones himself, into his own hands and systematically tortures him to discover where the girls are. But as Keller unravels into a descending spiral of rage and violent behavior, other suspects present themselves. It’s a stellar performance by Jackman, and by Gyllenhaal, as two fighters locking horns with each other and with the problem at hand.
Given the review responses (81% on Rotten Tomatoes), you have to imagine that this isn’t straightforward, and it’s not. The audience is led to believe it’s Jones, then it’s not, then maybe it is, then maybe… Crime, punishment, and culpability are broadly painted here, and we see a morality tale that peels back the skin and points to the potential for good or evil in the hearts of all of humanity. It’s the stuff of The Walking Dead (“we’re all infected, already”) and The Garden of Eden post-Fall (the first few chapters of Genesis in the Bible’s Old Testament). And it leaves us asking how we’d respond if we were searching for a loved one, and what we should consider about our own moral compass?
Romans 12:19 shows Yahweh God saying, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” As I walked out of Zero Dark Thirty, I felt like there was a perfect presentation of why that isn’t about God controlling who gets the satisfaction but because God knows that vengeance and violence aren’t ultimately going to fill you up. They can’t take away the hurt, and in the case of Prisoners, they’re not going to necessarily take you where you want to go. But when you dive into a dirty pool, you get dirty, too.
Prisoners also says something deeper. It says that there are forces of evil and darkness whose only satisfaction is bringing down the good. By good, I mean what most of us would consider ourselves, in the way that we are “good but not great,” or “good versus morally corrupt.” Keller is not excellent, but he’s not subpar. He just is; this situation pushes him into a place where he has choices to make and the choices are less than savory options. At one point he’s even taunted by the darkness: “we steal your children to make you into the demon you’ve become, to steal peoples’ faiths away.”
Do you recognize that there are forces in the world that want to see you suffer? That there are people without faith or hope or love who are not interested in whether or not those things are real but merely in taking yours away? I’m not regularly preaching or speaking about spiritual warfare, but I think we’re being foolish if we don’t recognize that there is absolute evil in the world. It’s just that I choose to focus on the absolute good, the nature of God and the sacrificial redemption we can find through Jesus Christ. I would argue that in a cycle of sin, despair, and moral corruption, that God broke the cycle when he used Jesus to break the chains of sin and death.
Prisoners seems to argue that everyone loses, because no one is able to break the cycle (to say more would be to spoil it for you). It’s a tale of great tragedy, and sadness, and one which asks us to consider, how do we respond to all of the slights and “minor violences” we encounter each day? How do we take the moments where other people harm us, intentionally or not, and respond in a way that God is glorified even in the midst of suffering?
Keller does a lot of praying. He prays before he hunts, and when he’s scared. But he also prays before he crosses moral boundaries that he knows he shouldn’t. And that plays into the moral justification area of the movie, where people do things they know are wrong because they think their ends are justifiable. (I’m aware that the average person reading this hasn’t kidnapped anyone, but what have you justified today before God or yourself, that you know isn’t right?)
The film isn’t pretty, and it isn’t uplifting, but it asks us how we respond and what we do when life is going sideways. Too many people in the community of Prisoners become imprisoned to other people’s choices or their own history, and never stop being who life seems to be pushing them to be. Unfortunately, that can happen to us, too, if we’re not intentionally focused on what is good, and true.
Can you break the cycle?