We are somewhere in the continental United States. It does not matter what state we are in because we’ve all seen mid-west suburbia, U.S.A. In the fall and winter months it’s bitter and cold, and a chill engulfs the face and hands, biting at our ears, nose, and fingers. It’s a mundane existence for families in mid-west suburbia. Their work is simple. Their holidays are simple. Life is simple and it makes sense. But there is evil that lurks in all parts of the country, even those places where it seems like nothing ever happens.
Two girls, from two separate families, go missing. “Oh, they’re probably playing over at the other family’s house”. Nope. “Well, maybe they’re playing in the woods”. No, they’re not there either. “There was this camper out front that they were playing on…someone was inside.” What camper…!?
Enter Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving day when he’s notified of the missing girls. The driver of the camper is apprehended and questioned, but he’s got the mind of a ten-year-old and provides no further information. What does a detective do then? What do the families of the missing girl’s do then? What would you do if one of your loved ones went missing?
That’s the premise of the film. There are many ways of finding a missing person, some of them legal, some of them illegal, but all of them require getting off one’s ass and searching. “Do your job”, detective Loki is told by Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the father of one of the missing girls. Loki is caught between a rock and a hard place. His abilities to search and apprehend go only as far as the law, and he exceeds that at times, but a father’s ability to search and apprehend go only as far as his ambition. And Keller Dover is a very ambitious and resourceful man.
Prisoners is not a cat-and-mouse thriller. It’s not even a puzzle, but rather a watch, wait, and learn kind of mystery. Crimes are not solved by smart detectives all the time, they are solved by perseverance. A detective must do a lot of watching and waiting. He must know patience. Sometimes a detective has to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes he’s got to hear and see those little nuances that will give a suspect away. Sometimes he has to rely on dumb luck. Detective Loki is no Harry Callahan, but he’s no Clarice Starling either. He’s somewhere in between the two – bending the limits of the law, knowing the habits of criminals, and asking particular questions. Gyllenhaal presents to us a new kind of detective, one possessing all the characteristics of detectives that we’ve seen in previous films and television shows, rolled into a single package, and beautifully formed as his own. It’s clear that Gyllenhaal did his homework and we are given the opportunity to admire the result.
Keller Dover and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are opposite sides of the same coin. Their daughters have been kidnapped and each father reacts differently to the traumatic circumstances. Dover takes matters into his own hands, while Birch idles in neutral and waits for the police to show results. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Their little girls are missing for God’s sake! Can either father’s reaction be considered extreme?
The usual suspects are rounded up – registered child molesters within a nine mile radius – but only one suspect owns a camper, Alex Jones. The suspects are grown men, yet still children. Their minds never matured and their lives are a cesspool of hurt and confusion. They speak in riddles and their clues are mazes that make no sense. That is how they elude capture. They are so confused that they could not possibly inflict pain on another human being. They are insane.
Prisoners is an evaluation of extremities. Is it right for a detective to step outside of his legal bounds to find two missing girls? Is it justifiable that a father take matters into his own hands? Are the insane entitled to the same rights as a sane person? Does mid-west suburbia, U.S.A. breed insanity? None of the questions are answered in the film, but it poses an interesting mystery.
Take a trip into the dark-side of what lurks just outside of your door step, and what we’ve never bothered to observe because we did not have the patience. Go see Prisoners, and you will know.