Prisoners of Sin

A review of the new movie "Prisoners"

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, L (limited adult audience)

Reel Rating,                 

G.K. Chesterton famously remarked in Orthodoxy that there was more evidence for original sin than for any other Christian doctrine. It’s hard to deny this truth after seeing Prisoners, a sad and difficult meditation on the problem of evil disguised as a terrific thriller with mesmerizing performances. The central sin here is child abduction. This tragic event leads normally upstanding citizens to commit horrible crimes. Evil moves slowly and secretly around a small heartbroken community, moving from person to person because no one seems to know how else to respond.

Yet God is there. Anguished prayers do not go unanswered and hope comes from unlikely sources. Prisoners is one of the most beautiful films of the year, skillfully demonstrating that the Christian messages of forgiveness and love of enemies are the only things that can break the cycle of evil. It is also a film most people will only be able to sit through once.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is the sort of father most people would want. He is loving, religious, and disciplined. His motto, “Pray for the best, prepare for the worse,” drives everything he does, from being an affectionate husband to stocking up ammo and bottled water in his basement. The film opens with him saying the “Our Father” immediately before his son shoots a deer for Thanksgiving dinner. It is a striking image that haunts the rest of the film.

The Dovers share the meal with their friends, the Birch family, but halfway through each family discovers that one of their daughters is missing. Keller is sure the culprit is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a twenty-something neighbor with a sad past, low IQ, and glasses that certainly make him look like a creeper. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lead investigator on the case, is not so sure. Keller is enraged when Jones is released, and assaults him on the way out of jail. While attacking him, Jones whispers something that convinces Keller he knows the girls’ location.

Dover has always provided for his family through good times and bad by hard work and sacrifice. But now he is powerless to help his daughter when she needs him most, and the clock is ticking. He makes a crucial error by taking matters into his own hands, kidnapping Jones and locking him in a small apartment. Under the pretense of searching for his daughter, he returns day after day to torture Jones, attempting to extract information. Justifying his actions, he says Jones “is not a man.”

The “Our Father” serves as a foil to Keller’s actions. The prayer tells men to depend on God for daily bread, but Keller is convinced it comes through sweat rather than grace. The prayer instructs the forgiveness of enemies, but forgiveness is not an option for Keller. There is only one graphic moment in the whole film: when we see the bloated, infected face of Jones after being pummeled by his kidnapper. In the final scenes, it becomes clear that Keller’s motives are not all that different from the villain’s, a perverted sense of justice that thwarts God’s will rather than following it.

Every character in Prisoners has a distinct theodicy and religious worldview. When everything is right with the world, it is easy to be thankful and know that God is control, but under the weight of terrible evil, true colors show. Keller, who proudly wears a cross on his neck and a fish on his truck bumper, doesn’t really believe in God; instead, he believes in himself. Loki is an agnostic modern who believes in science and forensics rather than God. A product of mid-century Catholic education (which he clearly did not enjoy), the detective now wears a masonic ring. Yet as his investigation deepens, he realizes that evil cannot be fought by only material means and divine help is necessary to save the innocent, a fact marked by the director zeroing in on a subtle cross tattoo.

Even the villain has a religious motivation, bluntly claiming a war on God. The villain wants parents and children to suffer and lose their faith as revenge for a perceived slight in the past. In a twisted way, this is the villain’s “justice.”

In a film so dark and grim, it is amazing to see how much hope there is in the end. Faced with the possibility of his own death, Keller utters a last prayer, not for his own life or revenge against his enemy, but for the safety of his daughter. His last prayer is one of love, and is clearly answered (in the most nerve-racking way possible). Prisoners shows that God cares about humanity’s plight and will answer prayers, but in ways that will help the faithful grow in holiness. Sometimes, that means suffering.

There is no nightmare more horrible for parents than the abduction of their children. If this is true for humans, how much more would it be true for God, to have his Son abused, tortured, and executed by the very people he came to save. God knows our pain, not intellectually or through his cosmic powers, but personally, intimately. Prisoners sees this pain and invites the audience to forgive as Christ forgave.

Usually, Catholics have to endure what Jim Gaffigan despairingly called “family friendly” films in order to see good morals. It is so refreshing to see a movie that deals with the struggles of adult life directly and fearlessly, while at the same time respecting the dignity of the humans involved and ending with a positive affirmation of religious faith. This is one of the year’s best films.

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About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".