Thursday, December 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013): Torture is useful unless it isn't?

I remember Jake's haircut from the 90s.
Prisoners (2013)
dir: Denis Villeneuve

In December 2012, Katherine Bigelow released a movie that started to steer the nation's conversation on torture, long after it was supposedly a closed subject (HAH!). Supposedly, Obama had already banned it, and America wasn't doing it anymore. But, because Zero Dark Thirty was about America's engagement in torture, any progress it brought us, and the cost it may have on both the torturers and the country, ZDT reopened the conversation for a few months. In August 2013, Prisoners was rushed into theaters, in no small part to continue the conversation in the pulpiest, trashiest, most exploitative movie this side of torture porn.

On Thanksgiving, two little girls are playing around their neighborhood when they are abducted. Earlier that day, a mysterious RV had been seen in the neighborhood, and was found nearby being driven by Alex Jones, an emotionally stunted manchild (Paul Dano). Of course Alex Jones is arrested, but there is no evidence linking him to the crime.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case, and he has never had a case go unsolved (Super detective trope). When interrogating Alex Jones offers up no information, Loki starts following other leads, which leads to him finding a pederast priest with a basement that has a dead guy with a maze necklace. Because that necklace is important, we get a closeup of it.

Eventually, the 48 hour hold period has lapsed, with no clues, and Loki has to release Alex Jones because he has no evidence to charge him with anything yet. And, of course, the chief is no help and will not bend any rules while also outright lying to Loki for no apparent reason (unhelpful salty Chief trope).

The angry father justice trope kicks in (see also Taken), and one of the fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) attacks Jones outside the police station. Jones quietly says something like "They were crying when you left," but the police won't believe him. So, Keller kidnaps Jones and takes him to an abandoned apartment building where Keller and the other girl's father begin to torture Jones to get the answers out of him.

Meanwhile, Loki spots a suspicious dude, who also has been buying children's clothing at a mall. He's arrested and also has mazes around his house. Also, for some reason, snakes. He's arrested and looks like the actual criminal, and thus Keller may be torturing the wrong person because the crying line was said so quietly it was barely heard on the soundtrack.


Anyways, lots of stupid shit happens, and it turns out that Jones and his aunt did actually kidnap the kids. The mysterious dude was an early victim. Jones eventually says that the kids are in a maze. And, thus the torturing was somewhat justified.

END SPOILERS (though spoilers are kind of a part of the rest of the discussion)

Prisoners is a truly trashy film that has two main political thrusts.

1) The justification of torture

2) NALT (Not all of us are like that)

Let's start with NALT, because it actually feeds into the metaphor of the first. The two girls are kidnapped by a crazy cult of maze-worshipping psychos who also use the phrase God. Loki is a worshipper of other religions (tattoos and such), but Keller is a Christian man. He has religion tuned in to his radio, says Our Father before torturing Alex Jones, and has a Christfish on his car. He's a good ol' American.  But, the maze-worshipping psychos are posed to be mildly Christian, kind of like the cannibals of We Are What We Are (American). Prisoners is reinforcing that Christian men are the true victims here, and that some of the psychos are giving religion a bad name...which, ugh, because torture is being justified in this movie.

And, the torture is the American government torture. Because the kids are being kidnapped by some religious sect, one can easily heavy-handedly say that the cult kidnapped America's innocence, and we're just trying to get it back through torture. Which...gross. Because, the torture is occasionally threatened to be not justified, but in the end it does get answers. So, in Prisoners' world, if the torture gets answers, it is completely justified. But, if it is the wrong person, it isn't. Prisoners would have been more interesting by a factor of 10 if the movie had stopped with them finding the kids after finding the first crazy guy. Because, what if you're torturing somebody who had nothing to do with anything?

But, the torture didn't really spawn anything interesting. All Jones says is "maze." Keller gets all his information from the girl who escaped. Torture didn't really get any real information, even if it was torturing the right person. Maze just is information to the audience, not to the character, as I don't think he saw the maze drawing. But, since it was information that informed us that the Jones participated in the kidnapping, it actually is a valid technique in this world.

All politics aside, what really kills Prisoners is that it is fucking ridiculous. Cop cars in Prisoners are equipped with lights, but not sirens for some reason. Keller willingly goes into a hole after being shot for no apparent reason. Why he doesn't go after the aunt with the same vigor as he did with Jones is beyond me. Half of the movie is "well, that happened." Prisoners is a trope-heavy ball of ridiculous behavior.

The final shot of the movie is hysterical. I can't even tell what they're trying to say. Is Jones going to be rescued? Should we care? Or, is it that this case will haunt Loki for his life, like a whistle in the wind? What the hell does this stupid stupid ending mean?

Prisoners is trying to be a cruel movie that is asking serious questions about torture, and how far you will go as a person. But, what Prisoners ends up as is an unintentional comedy that would be hilariously over-the-top if Villechaize didn't keep the tone so dour, and the pacing as plodding as it is. It's mildly brutal, but it is also like the mentally challenged stepchild of Se7en.

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