Nonviolence is not an easy thing to make fans of. Pacifists can hear the question coming before they even fully open up about their viewpoints. “Nonviolence in all cases, huh? What if someone threatened your family?” The latest film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners, fearlessly voyages into the possibility of an answer.
Within fifteen minutes of Prisoners starting, Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard’s daughters go missing. Child abduction isn’t something anyone is going to take lying down, especially not if you have the physique of Wolverine. The first likely suspect is Paul Dano playing a mentally stunted character whose screen presence is inflected by an almost otherworldly sense of eerie quietness. Jake Gyllenhall is the detective running the case, who concludes Dano simply couldn’t have been responsible. Jackman has reason to believe otherwise and goes by an “eye-for-an-eye” ethic which would have Jean Valjean frowning. After abducting Dano, the Guantanamo-Bay-on-steroids style questioning begins.
Prisoners is a film whose title wraps inside, outside and around its message and characters. After the daughters’ abduction, it becomes apparent everyone in the film is a prisoner. Some are imprisoned by the legal system, some are imprisoned by a fearful and protective sense of duty while all seem to be imprisoned by a web of awful actions. Jackman is a victim who becomes a perpetrator, convicted by his own resolve to set things right in a world gone mad. Gyllenhall is shackled by his pride (he’s never not solved a case), his precinct’s bureaucratic ensnarements and Jackman’s vigilanteism.
Villeneuve hits on a theme often whispered in cinema but here stated with a much higher decibel range: often, evil is the product of entrapment. Isn’t imprisonment, to some degree, the Christian doctrine of sin anyway? Sin is willful action only insofar as it is dominated by a disposition towards evil to start with. We must learn to do good because evil comes easy.
But what of the types of situations presented here by Villeneuve? What of violence in the face of innocence’s robbery? Jackman’s character here is no guiltier in his actions than the Psalmists are in their language. When your daughter is stolen, can you be blamed for taking action? The legal system works when the circuits are closed but, in this story, the wires are live and electrocuting everybody. Do not repay evil for evil, certainly, but Jackman thinks he’s doing good. Dano is dehumanized to begin with, even more so by the torture, and Jackman realizes midway through that the process of violence is taking a toll on his own wellbeing too. In the cause of justice, especially justice done by violence, you’ve got to know your suspect is a villain and not just another victim.
Terrence Howard’s character is the other side of the coin. He’s a bystander who doesn’t quite know what to do with the evil around him. His greatest stride towards justice is his fragile faith it will be done, independent of his actions. He tearfully admonishes Jackman for not knowing whether what he’s doing is right or even if Dano knows where their daughters are to begin with. What a fearful thing to have that kind of blood on your hands if you’re wrong.
Prisoners’ brilliance lies in its ability to do away with traditional conceptions of heroes and villains in the face of abduction, violence and the search for what is just. Men are not moral imperatives. Their decisions will always be plagued by imprisonment because, to some degree, our souls are in solitary confinement. Justice is so hard to do in the world of Prisoners for the same reason it’s so hard to do in our world: we are imprisoned by fear, afraid of anything resembling the precarious freedom of faith, and our actions are dominated by this take on reality.
Jackman sits beside a boarded up shower he’s made to pour only scalding hot or freezing cold water on to his prime suspect. As he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he can’t muster up the ability to finish the corollary: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
The film really gets a handle on the difficulty of nonviolent acceptance of circumstance when anything like agnosticism remains. If the cosmos isn’t reeling towards justice and all we have to protect ourselves and our families is our own intuition, then we must renege on all the beautiful principles laid down by Jesus, Gandhi and MLK. But if our whistling in the dark is heard by justice personified, then we can rest assured our forgiveness or our reliance on the means of peace is not in vain. As Prisoners concludes, it is random chance circumstance or benevolent, purposeful fate that solves the mystery and sets its characters free. And given the spiritual undertones of the film, the latter seems more likely. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.”