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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 

 Prisoners


Directed by Denis Villeneuve (2013)

There's a programme on BBC Radio 4 I make every effort to avoid. It's called The Moral Maze. I don't like it because the various dilemmas the panellists try to tackle can't be solved by applying moral values. They are political. By which I mean they are questions of power.

A maze, an insoluble maze that offers no escape route, is a motif that runs through Prisoners and provides, perhaps ironically, the clue to the disappearance/abduction of two young girls that triggers this morally ambivalent thriller.

One of the fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a Christian with slightly worrying survivalist tendencies, turns vigilante when prime kidnap suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man, we're told, who has the mental age of a 10-year-old, is released by the police. He abducts Alex himself and takes him to the derelict flat where his father used to live where he tortures him to find out what he's done with the girls.

This is pretty hard to watch, and it's made clear that we're seeing over again, in a domestic setting in middle America, the obscenity of Abu Ghraib. At one point we find Alex with a sack over his head. We're not sure whether he even understands the questions.

A brutal beating is not enough, so Keller, a resourceful handyman, develops more sophisticated techniques: his own versions of sensory deprivation and water torture.

Yet in abusing this man-child he's morally determined. If he can find out where the girls are hidden he can save their lives. After all, he's working against the clock. It's another image from the Iraq war: the ticking time-bomb.

When they find out what he's doing the parents of the other girl, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), are at first appalled. But the moral imperative wins them round and they become complicit in the horror.

Meanwhile, Detective Loki, the police officer who to begin with does it by the book, is beating up another suspect in the interview room. Jake Gyllenhall plays Loki as a disturbed loner. We're offered no home life, no back-story to the character, and he works alone, as if they're short-staffed at the station.

Gyllenhall's Loki also sports a compulsive blink, as though he's continually trying to see his way through the mystery and, indeed, the moral fog.

For most of the action Prisoners maintains a tension that makes you ache. But towards the end, as we begin to find out what's been going on, that tension spools out, which is something of a relief.

Most of the time, too, we're sure not only that Keller is in the wrong, but it's what the film wants us to think. Then, after he's definitely been proved wrong, Keller's wife Grace (Maria Bello) declares he was right. That what he's done makes him a good man. She's proud of him.

Keller himself is no sadist. He does what he does with a grimace of Christian agony. And so do Franklin and Nancy. Everyone is in on it. Who are we to object?

And what does this say about Abu Ghraib and moral intervention? Probably not much. Like The Moral Maze the politics are lost in translation to personal dilemma, and the potential to resist is lost, too.

October 14, 2013


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