Arts movie review

Ethics and Consequences

Director Villeneuve asks a terrifyingly real question about how far we would go to protect the ones we love

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Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Alex Johnes (Paul Dano) in Prisoners.
Wilson Webb
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Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) in Prisoners.
Wilson Webb



Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard

Rated R

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Perhaps the most terrifying thing about disaster is the idea that it can strike at any time. Prisoners, a harrowing tale of kidnapping, is about two average families in an eerily beautiful suburbia.

On Thanksgiving, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) brings his wife and family over to Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Holly Birch’s (Viola Davis) house for a simple get-together. As the dinner winds down, Dover and Birch’s young daughters ask to go outside to find a missing whistle. The after dinner chatter is remarkably mundane, yet sounds strained and unnatural, as if even the families are anxiously anticipating the approaching terror.

Soon after, Dover and Franklin walk out to find the girls. Their search is punctuated by director Denis Villeneuve’s hauntingly empty scenes, lingering on ominous details. Neither Keller nor Franklin can find the girls, and their only lead is a decrepit white RV parked near the Birch’s house at the beginning of the dinner.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case. A stereotypical laid-back loner, he approaches the case with an infuriating lack of empathy. While the Dovers and Birches frantically comb the woods near their house, Loki makes only a half-hearted attempt to hold the shifty, suspicious owner of the RV, Alex Jones.

Villeneuve works hard to create a realistic family. The stunning cinematography creates an idyllic suburbia with a muted palette and lingering scenes that truly define the isolation of each family member from the others. But this prologue feels hollow. Even the characters seem to be reading lines from someone else’s story.

The ensuing story escalates after Jones is released. Dover is forced to make the hard decision of whether to take matters into his own hands or not. We are drawn into asking ourselves, what would we do in order to save someone we love? Would we react violently? Would we resort to torture? Would we confront the suspected killer, and beg for mercy for our daughter? Or would we fill our heads with willful delusions and medicate ourselves until we had trouble remembering reality?

One thing is for sure: there are no happy endings. Every action, whether lawful or anarchic, good or evil, has a consequence. Rather than shying away from the brutal beatings, Villeneuve forces us to confront the consequences. As Dover maniacally beats the suspect, we must watch him whimper and plead like a lost child. Even if we turn away, we are no less implicit in our encouragement of the violence than the other grieving father, Franklin, who watches the torture without saying a word.

And what price should Dover pay, if he is wrong? Detective Loki tracks down another suspect who has been buying children’s clothes in thrift stores, and snuck into both the Birch and Dover’s houses. What if Dover has been torturing an innocent man all along?

The puzzle starts to come together as Detective Loki begins to match pieces from the different crime scenes together. Obscure hints placed throughout the movie help lead him to the true perpetrator, but will it be too late for the girls?

The suspenseful movie ends with an ambiguous cliffhanger, forcing us to determine the fate of the characters. While the ending was intentional, I couldn’t help being disappointed by the conclusion. Throughout the movie, the characters had to make difficult decisions with limited information. Yet at the end, when the villain was clear, both Dover and Loki chose to throw away logic in order to set up the ending. Though the setup was extremely unsatisfying, it seems logical to force us to pass judgment on who is guilty or innocent, and what price they should pay.

Though the movie dragged along at the beginning, director Villeneuve was able to create a truly terrifying thriller by forcing us to confront our own morals and the consequences of our actions without losing any of the adrenaline. I’d definitely recommend seeing this movie with a friend, otherwise you’ll be terrified of being kidnapped or tortured after leaving the theater.