(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.
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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.