If it is fair to go by numbers, movies about demons are both cheap and easy to make. Depending on how broadly you are willing to define “demon,” I would wager something demonic hits an American theater once a month. The never-ending spate of creepy kid movies which yet issue forth from The Ring’s wake, haunted house movies, haunted internet movies, good old-fashioned slasher flicks… neither contemporary politics nor the evening news is sufficiently stomach-turning or terrifying to keep Americans from squeezing in another two hours on the weekend at the local AMC charnel house.
Our fascination with serial killers knows few bounds. For all our interest and outrage over the electric chair and the insane asylum, it seems Americans actually believe the best place to put a mass murderer is on a silver screen. Don’t put him to death, for God’s sake, he’s a world class entertainer! One shudders to think what Americans would do with her killers if, for some reason, we lost the power to create new motion pictures.
Would you save the genre, Lord, if there were ten righteous found therein? Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction is a theologically-savvy demon story which grapples with free will and determinism, and, inasmuch as zombies are demons, 28 Days Later is a miraculous response to the survivalism often preached by Old Scratch’s ministers. But to say that some movies about demons are better than others might not be much different than saying some bouts of demonic possession are not as severe as others. Scan through the “supernatural horror” films streaming on Netflix and you’ll find many of the titles written in what appears to be splattered blood. For the discerning moviegoer, who has heard something of the plot of Prisoners, the film probably seems a bit like a two-day expired jug of cheap milk or a rickety bridge over a deep chasm. You really want someone else to go first.
Movies about kidnappings are a dime a dozen, although, curiously, children are rarely kidnapped. Wealthy persons are kidnapped and the ransoming unfolds in a series of tense, painful missteps. Or beautiful young women are kidnapped or held hostage by freaks, then tortured for a while for the audience’s wide-eyed disapproval, but escape in the end. Such kidnapping movies are rarely meant to inspire horror in the audience. The latter are simply pornographic, and play up a desire to fantasize about kidnapping someone else. Stories about the kidnapped rich seem too distant from the average moviegoer to rely on a sympathetic terror. At the point in Ransom when Mel Gibson offers millions of dollars to anyone who can bring him his son’s kidnappers, the movie ceases to really hit home. Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, on the other hand, set out to make a movie about kidnapping that capitalizes on middle-class fears. The film opens with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family walking from their little two-story, suburban house down the road a dozen doors to the Birch’s place for Thanksgiving dinner. At least half the people who purchased tickets for this one live in houses indistinguishable from those in the film, and the family names seem borrowed from a list of benignly-titled American housing communities (I must have driven passed a “Dover Run” or a “Birch Place” ten hundred thousand times in my life, each of them filled with the same three or four bedroom, quarter mill or less). Villeneuve quickly unveils the normalcy, but no detail is applied too thickly or brightly. Dinner seems a moderate success, someone suggests a game, teenagers watch a movie in the basement. It’s all boilerplate normal, but Villeneueve is doing tough work, because the horror of the film stands and falls on the believable normality of the little domestic scenes which open the thing up; if Hugh Jackman can’t not come across as an X-Man, or the fellow who sang and danced at the Oscars a few years ago, then the whole movie registers as yet another story about the travails of the wealthy, and thus comfortably distant from the audience. Keller is a Christian, though, and obviously so, which means the audience can easily forget he’s a rich celebrity. In films of the last twenty years, what aspect of a character ever comes across so unsubtly as their religion? A cross dangles obviously from his rearview mirror, and while he hunts deer with his son, Keller advises readiness and preparedness as the great virtues; Christianity is a religion for besieged and threatened people, so it seems, a religion for people on the edge. There is, perhaps, a ring of truth to all this, given the importance of “making ready” in the parables of Christ, not to mention the role that “preparing to die” has always played in Christian piety, but Keller’s readiness seems a bit like 20th century American foreign policy— carrying a big stick, et cetera—and not like the service of a God Whose “strength is made perfect in weakness.” Jackman is brawny, tough, wears plaid over a Henley and a thick goatee. Jackman is Keller Dover, by which we are meant to hear “Killer Dove.” Conflicted from birth between Christian mildness and a desire to make tooth and claw red.
After the normalcy is established, Joy Birch and Ann Dover, neither older than seven or eight, ask to run back to the Birch place for something, and an hour later they cannot be found. Joy and Ann’s older siblings claim a camper van haunting the neighborhood earlier disappeared about the time the girls went missing, and an APB leads the cops to the same van only a few hours later. As the cops approach the parked van, the driver suddenly floors the gas and crashes into a tree. Bloodied, the driver is removed from the van and the van is searched, but it yields nothing and hours of questioning the driver, Alex Jones, yields nothing either. Fortunately for the audience, Alex Jones is played by Paul Dano, whose face will never pass over a silver screen apart from viewers recalling the queasiness of early teenage debauched imaginations. If you surrender to the aesthetic logic of the film at the point of Jones’ arrest, you will invariably sympathize with Keller, who takes a single look at Jones and seems willing to wager his immortal soul on the fellow’s guilt. Surely he knows where the girls are, dead or alive. Apparently Alex Jones is mentally handicapped and has only the intellect of a ten year old; his elderly mother collects him from the cop shop after they can yield no legal reason to hold him. In the parking lot, Keller assaults Alex and while the two tussle on the ground, Alex whispers, “They didn’t cry until I left them,” and only Keller hears. For a moment, the film threatens to become Rosemary’s Baby, wherein the only character who knows of the impending horror has acquired the knowledge by special revelation and, while that special revelation seems like it ought to be obvious, the hero is doomed to be doubted until the dénouement. But director Denis Villeneuve has something more ambitious in mind.
Keller and the ultimately misnamed Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend most of the film talking and working passed each other. Keller abducts Alex and chains him up in an abandoned house, then goes to work on him, trying to extract information on the whereabouts of the girls. Loki tries to find the girls, but suspects foul play when Alex turns up missing and must wrangle Keller, as well. Much might be said of the strange constellation of clues which Loki slowly uncovers, some by intention and some by accident, although the real story is Keller and his unshakable certainty that Alex knows where the girls are. At first, Villeneuve makes us skeptical Jones is guilty, then he suggests and he implies and he lets us doing a little work and, soon enough, we are not so skeptical. But then a twist late in the second act makes us think we were right to be skeptical, but it’s a dead end… Keller knows most of what the audience knows, but seems incapable of thinking twice. For days, he beats and burns Alex, demanding answers, but Jones is speechless. Keller brings the Birches to his torture chamber to help, but they prove unenthusiastic assistants and so Keller largely carries on by himself. The audience is never moved by Keller’s certainty, although we might pity him in his irrationality and delusion.
At the same time, the subject of torture shoots like a bullet toward a discussion of epistemic certainty. In the last ten years, more often than not, arguments against the use of torture (to gain information) hinge on the notion that no one can know for certain whether the person being tortured has the desired information. For what it’s worth, St. Augustine was unmoved by such arguments. In XIX.6 of the City of God, Augustine writes:
…judges are men who cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar, and are therefore frequently compelled to put innocent witnesses to the torture to ascertain the truth regarding the crimes of other men. What shall I say of torture applied to the accused himself? He is tortured to discover whether he is guilty, so that, though innocent, he suffers most undoubted punishment for crime that is still doubtful, not because it is proved that he committed it, but because it is not ascertained that he did not commit it. Thus the ignorance of the judge frequently involves an innocent person in suffering. And what is still more unendurable— a thing, indeed, to be bewailed, and, if that were possible, watered with fountains of tears— is this, that when the judge puts the accused to the question, that he may not unwittingly put an innocent man to death, the result of this lamentable ignorance is that this very person, whom he tortured that he might not condemn him if innocent, is condemned to death both tortured and innocent… And when he has been condemned and put to death, the judge is still in ignorance whether he has put to death an innocent or a guilty person…
Of course, if true, none of this necessarily exonerates Keller, who acts as a judge in his own cause, although I find it helpful in clarifying why I couldn’t bring myself to despise Keller, even if the narrative sometimes seemed weighted against him. Keller’s certainty is his sin, his blindness. Early on, he is certain of Alex’s guilt and certain of his own ability to extract a confession. Late in the film, he is no longer certain he’ll get a confession. After torturing Alex for days, Keller is exhausted and discouraged and remorseful. He quietly prays for the aid of God, Alex hears and finally throws him a clue. What displays of strength couldn’t do for Keller, a display of weakness could. He is quick to forget, though. After that brief prayer, we don’t see Keller talk to God again. He runs on his own steam.
When the guilty party is finally revealed, we find Keller tortured Alex by the design of someone else. The kidnapper claims, “Making children disappear is how we wage war with God. Makes people lose their faith. Breeds demons like you.” It’s a remarkably studied claim, perhaps born out of time spent in Milton or Lewis. In Paradise Lost, Satan is prudent enough to know that attacking God is out of the question, so he sets to work on men, the friends of God, knowing that God will suffer if man suffers. The great demonic work is simply to distract man from God, to get man thinking and caring about something other than the love of God. The demons in the film attack a family man where it hurts the most; the demon knows that most men find it easy to love family, but hard to love God, and thus throw that soul-crushing truth in men’s faces to break them of their faith and spiritual dignity. Keller’s family is his highest point of appeal. He is willing to jettison prudence, self-control and justice in order to secure their return, and yet, the narrative pulls back from judging Keller too severely. The demon claims Keller is become a demon, but why should we believe this? Demons are liars.
Complicating all this is the fact that Keller’s conclusion about Jones is both entirely right and entirely wrong at once; inasmuch as Keller is wrong, his total loss of prudence and justice and self-control is manifested for what it is (and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief that the inclination to judge Keller a maniac was not wrong), but inasmuch as Keller is right and gains something ultimately valuable in torturing Jones… it is hard to say if this is dumb luck, God’s mercy, or some kind of poetic justice. The moral ambiguity in the film isn’t hard and fast, but neither is it non-committal. Uncertainty and high-vaulted relativity have nothing in common.
If Prisoners were set in an actual prison, it would not be a hard labor camp, but the kind of desolate island where Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman find themselves at the end of Papillion. Prisoners was shot by CBE Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Skyfall), who used ninety shades of blue to create a watery, submerged world which well recalls the chaos of the ocean in the ancient Greek and Hebrew imagination. Icelandic ambient musician Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is tense, but washed out in a befitting murkiness. The overcast, brooding mood of the film sails all the way through the credits. Those who waited for a father and daughter reunion will simply be left with that hope intact.