Prisoners: The Monsters Within

Prisoners is already being hailed as an Oscar contender this year, for its chilling portrayal of a family in distress as well as its stunning cinematography. Grey skies and pouring rain amplify the somber tones in this modern noir piece set in small-town Pennsylvania. Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki confront the despair and anger that follows the abduction of Keller’s daughter.

Even though the trailer makes Prisoners look like a suspenseful thriller, on the lines of Taken (2008), with the abduction of a girl and her father’s quest for vengeance, it is no surprise that it has been characterized as a horror film. Not only does Prisoners maintain a constant sense of fear and dread, at the heart of it is a reminder that we are all capable of creating that feeling of fear and dread in others.

The movie opens with a prayer. Our father who art in heaven, prays Keller as his son is about to shoot a deer in snow-covered woods to take to their neighbors’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. The neighbors, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), have a daughter the same age as Keller and Grace’s (Maria Bello) daughter. After dinner, the girls step outside to play, and disappear, leaving behind no trace.

Alex Jones (Paul Dano), driver of a mysterious RV that was parked nearby, is the only suspect but is released when the police find no evidence against him. Even as Loki is sure that Alex, with the IQ of a 10-year-old, is not capable of abducting two girls in broad daylight and making them disappear, Keller is convinced that Alex is guilty. Unsatisfied with the Loki’s work, Keller kidnaps Alex and takes him to an abandoned apartment, where he begins to threaten him, and then descends to torture.

Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano in PrisonersKeller’s helplessness and rage is understandable; he feels he has failed in his duty to be the protector of his family. He is a religious man: he prays before he hunts, he wears a cross on a chain around his neck, and a wooden cross dangles from the rearview mirror of his truck. Though he justifies his actions by blaming Alex—“why are you making me do this?” —he knows he is wrong. One afternoon, he breaks down and prays—forgive us our trespasses as we…. He falters.

Prisoners shows us the terrible deeds we are capable of, be it torturing someone for all the right reasons, or allowing the torture to take place. It shows us the horrors present in our world, the quiet desperation that makes us suspend our morals and our faith, and forces us to acknowledge and accept that we are capable of hurting and damaging others.

The movie has been compared to last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, for presenting questions about the morality and legality of torture and providing only ambiguous answers. But where Zero Dark Thirty looks at torture from a social perspective, at what a nation can or cannot do to keep its citizens safe, Prisoners brings the question to a personal level. What would you do to keep your family safe? Would you resort to torture? Would you take a hammer to someone’s hands and face? Punch them till they were unrecognizable? Prisoners makes us look at ourselves, confront the monster caged within us, one that we keep soothed, but that can claw out of our skin, ready to attack.

We are surrounded by horror. We accept that as a fact of life. But Prisoners makes us look at the horrors within us, at the monsters we know we can become.

Dee B