Directed by Denis Villeneuve (2013)
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
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.
beating is not enough, so Keller, a resourceful handyman, develops more
sophisticated techniques: his own versions of sensory deprivation and
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub