Last night my wife and I watched on VOD an undersung film of 2013, director Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” It’s a film stocked with excellent actors, including Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhall.
The movie begins with a prayer. It’s Hugh Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, praying as his son takes aim at a deer, then shoots. The prayer is one of a number Dover utters in the course of the story. Here is a man of faith, one who takes himself seriously as the head and protector of his household.
As Dover and his son head back to the small Georgia town that is their home, they pass a recreational vehicles, playing the song, “Put Your Hand in the Hand.”
Jump some hours ahead and we learn it’s Thanksgiving. The Dover family is celebrating at the home of friends, the Birchs. The recreational vehicle seen earlier is now ominously parked just down the block from the Birchs’ house. The day proceeds and at some point the daughter of the Dovers and the daughter of the Birchs, each six years old, wander outdoors. Eventually the parents realize the girls are missing.
They’re informed about the RV, now itself missing. Police are involved, and they find and arrest the RV’s driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Jones is a mentally handicapped young man, with the mentality of a ten-year-old. The police get not incriminating information from Jones and, after a day or two, release him.
But Keller Dover is convinced Jones abducted the girls. And, as noted before, he regards himself as the protector of his family. He’s also something of a survivalist and libertarian. So he decides to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Jones and, in the film’s most disturbing scenes, attempts to beat and torture a confession out of him.
What has happened to the man of quiet and hopeful prayers?
The answer comes later, from someone who is the actual abductor of the girls. This person informs Dover that people should no longer believe in a good and caring God, and the most effective way to rob people of their faith is to kidnap their chlldren. Then the parents become likes “demons” raging.Dover has become just such a raging demon.
To put a finer point on it, Dover because of his terrible loss has lost the vision to see others as “Put Your Hand in the Hand” would have us see them. Remember the part of the fist verse that runs, “Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently, by puttin’ your hand in the hand of man from Galilee.” Dover remarks before embarking on another torture session of Jones,”He’s no longer human.” Dover can no longer see his captor “differently,” in the light of the man from Galilee.
I’d said enough to indicate how “Prisoners” is a twisty, excellent thriller, and how the film works on rich texts and subtexts. And many of the texts and subtexts are richly theological. I won’t say more—and risk any more of arriving at spoilers to the plot. Instead, I leave it to you to see the movie on your own, and discover in full its considerable depths.