Why ‘Prisoners’ Is Too Easy on the Subject of Torture

Why 'Prisoners' Is Too Easy on

REARVIEW: When it comes to violent interrogation, the tidy moral conclusions of 'Prisoners' are no match for the grave, troubling ambiguities of 'Zero Dark Thirty.'

(SPOILER ALERT: This piece reveals key details about the plot of “Prisoners.”)

Why is it so often the ambiguous, unresolved movie that generates controversy while the easy, complacent one gets a free pass? To wit: Why does “Prisoners,” Denis Villeneuve’s self-serious booby-trap of a thriller, cause nary a stir for its pseudo-provocative condemnation of torture, while director Kathryn Bigelow’s hard-hitting, tough-minded “Zero Dark Thirty” gets her called names like “torture’s handmaiden”?

Apples and oranges, perhaps. But in light of a recent Mother Jones piece that praised Villeneuve’s movie as a corrective to Bigelow’s pro-torture propaganda, it’s hardly too soon to revisit “Zero Dark Thirty,” which kicked off a far-reaching debate last year over the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the ethics of its representation, the demands of historical accuracy, the differences between journalism and dramatization, and the dangers of political writers fancying themselves film critics (and vice versa).

It was a painful, often infuriating conversation but also a fascinating and necessary one — and, as is frequently the case when a movie incites misunderstanding and outrage, the breadth of the discussion was in many ways a testament to the intelligence and subtlety of the work being discussed. Here was a film subversive enough to complicate our reactions to a watershed event that earned near-unanimous approval in the U.S., the killing of bin Laden. Here, too, was a film that didn’t tell us how to react to its discomfiting footage of a CIA operative subjecting a detainee to acts of matter-of-fact brutality.

The grave, troubling ambiguity of “Zero Dark Thirty,” what makes it a work of truly radical moral complexity, is that even if one perceives a causal link between the early scenes of interrogation and the eventual discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts — a link that I would dispute, given all the missteps, false leads, strokes of good luck and non-torture-related detective work along the way — Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal never fall into the trap of suggesting that an effective tactic is automatically a necessary or ethical one. Coolly dispassionate in their refusal to justify either the ends or the means, the filmmakers instead leave us to ponder a series of questions: Is the destruction of absolute evil worth the lengths some will go to achieve it? Does barbarism become excusable on those rare occasions when it might produce a desirable outcome?

Those questions also loom, sort of, over “Prisoners,” albeit in service of a far more transparent and ultimately less unsettling thesis. It’s worth noting that Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski are working within the realm of fiction here, and their setting is not a tricky geopolitical mine field but the ostensibly purer terrain of small-town America, a God-fearing community where two young girls have been kidnapped. It’s the sort of tried-and-true children-in-peril hook that has given dramatic impetus to any number of thrillers, from “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” to the less rarefied likes of “Man on Fire” and “Taken,” and here it provides enough of a pretext for desperate dad Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) to go postal on Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the mentally challenged young individual whom he holds responsible for the girls’ disappearance.

To the film’s credit, Dover is painfully aware that every minute that goes by reduces the likelihood of the girls being discovered alive, lending a sense of urgency to his actions without making them any less hideous to behold. “(Jones) stopped being a person when he took them,” Dover rationalizes, putting rather too fine a point on the irony that it is he, of course, who will end up surrendering his humanity. It’s properly unsettling to watch as he beats Jones so relentlessly that the kid’s head comes to resemble a swollen, bloody pinata, and then subjects him to a scalding hot shower. Villeneuve’s direction of these scenes is commendably restrained, lingering on the spectacle of Jones’ suffering with a quiet, implicative intimacy that allows our horror and revulsion to commingle with pity.

Dover, of course, is no ordinary angry/grieving father; really, he’s one adamantium treatment away from being Jackman’s latest incarnation of Wolverine. But then, lest we might be tempted to write the guy off as some batshit-crazy anomaly (or the sort of individual you’d only find in the movies), there’s Terrence Howard as the other girl’s dad, popping up with a few half-hearted protests (“It’s not right!”) before settling into the role of Dover’s reluctant accomplice. He’s soon joined by a stone-faced Viola Davis as his similarly outraged but ultimately complicit wife.

Oh, the evil that lurks in the hearts of good, upright men and women! And yet, as “Prisoners” plays out this carefully rigged scenario of shared guilt and abuse, the characters’ dilemma — should they or shouldn’t they be doing this? (hint: they shouldn’t) — begins to feel less like an authentically agonizing drama than a tidy illustration conceived and executed for our moral benefit. Just to further remove all doubt that torture is a vile, ineffectual abomination (spoilers ahead), it’s eventually revealed that Jones, far from being the guilty party, is as much an innocent victim as the two girls, a vindication that forces Dover to confront the grim reality of his monstrous misdeeds. (Elsewhere, the film takes pains to insist that whenever someone takes the law into his own hands — as when Jake Gyllenhaal’s detective gets aggressively out-of-line with another suspect — the instantly dire consequences serve to impede rather than advance the cause of justice.)

Of course, where I see a film methodically stacking the deck in support of a fairly obvious point, others see a work of scrupulous, morally responsible storytelling that satisfies the apparent mandate of art to state its intentions and conclusions as obviously as possible; hence that Mother Jones review, which hailed “Prisoners” as “the best argument against torture that has emerged from the film industry in a long time.” That line is presumably intended as a compliment and a recommendation, when in fact it’s an apt reminder of the folly of embracing any film that has the good fortune to reaffirm your worldview. And it exposes one of the key failings of Villeneuve’s movie, which is how neatly its hand-wringing, fist-clenching morality play resolves itself, as though ethical quandaries were as cheap and dispensable as the red herrings that abound in the film’s third act.

Both “Prisoners” and “Zero Dark Thirty” set out, in their own different ways, to grapple with harsh and unsavory truths about the American character. But where one film is a true moral thriller, acknowledging ugly and unresolvable realities with sobering clarity, the other feels like the work of an armchair provocateur — dangling weighty questions in our face one minute, distracting us with narrative sleight-of-hand the next, and generally doing whatever it takes, by any means necessary, to ensure that we don’t have to think too hard about what it all means.

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  1. Cam Sully says:

    This review completely misses the mark as Zero Dark Thirty was propaganda (plain and simple) and Prisoners was about dealing with an unimaginable terror such as finding your child’s kidnapper.

  2. Joe Smart says:

    Warning, spoilers: I thought Prisoners was overrated but it didn’t really strike me as being an anti-torture film. Hugh Jackman’s daughter would have never been found alive if he hadn’t engaged in torture. I also didn’t see Paul Dano’s character as being as big of a victim as the girls since he was, in fact, the person who took the girls in the first place. Yes, he was kidnapped as a child but that doesn’t make him less of an accomplice as an adult. He also could have stopped the torture and told Hugh Jackman exactly where the girls were, so how much sympathy can you really muster for him?

    • abigale says:

      Incorrect. The torturing of a mentally impaired man (with more issues both mental and emotional) didn’t do anything to help find the girls. It did help him get shot and end up in a hole in the ground though. The cop finds the child, through investigating and piecing together the body in the church with the history of missing child cases. He even says it in the beginning ‘shut up and let me do my job’

      Alex was not only kidnapped but was stuck with a psycho. Being drugged until his mind became unstable and his IQ lowered was the least of his problems. I’d add distrust of authority figures, stockholm syndrome and possibly even conditioning to the list too. I have no sympathy for a man (or his buddies) who decided to torture a mentally retarded man who can hardly even spell his own name and not let the cop do his job.

      My sympathy lies with Alex, the son, the girls and his wife.

  3. Am says:

    Prisoners isn’t a good movie for the reasons stated. I don’t understand the way anyone could think of it as being some high moral statement, precisely because of the way it smoothly resolves itself. Does anyone doubt that the Jackman character is a ‘good man,’ (as per the Bello speech to Gyllenhal near the end), who has (relatably to most, I guess) stumbled? I walked away thinking the film’s point was that what he had done was necessary in finding his girl alive, and because she was indeed left alive at the end seems to illustrate a justification, if not an endorsement, for torture — in dire circumstances. The Jackman character might go to prison, but the film cuts to black before this, is unconcerned with illustrating his punishment. It is instead gives the audience a satisfying resolution that’s carefully constructed as not too difficult to stomach. It would have been far more moral to leave the Jackman character in the pit to die. But that’s what carefully placed red whistles are for. Sighs. Still, the film is pure fiction, so I suppose one can admire the attempt (however blandly made, however muddy its points.)

    Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, drops a multifaceted, extremely complex reality into a standard good-guys vs. bad-guys procedural template for the purpose of our mass consumption. This is the work’s miscalculation and, I would argue, a greater affront to the concept of morality than Prisoners. Yes, it is a much better-made film by a far cleaner technician (whose fine art pedigree should have easily dismissed the initial idea for ZDT at once), but doesn’t that mean it should be discerned with more fastidiousness (and accordingly dismantled) by criticism? Further, one suspects the filmmakers were only opportunistically interested in this subject matter particularly for its (clearly) perceived ‘hipness’ in the culture — which one might regard as the ultimate folly.

  4. Jake says:

    But you disregard the fact that the controversy over zero dark thirty was about the military using torture in real life.

  5. Bill says:

    More importantly, it’s entertainment, not a morality screed.

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