‘Prisoners’: The Exploration of Fear and Morality

“And thus when they appeared at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage – and all my own !”

~ The Prisoner Of Chillon

Lord Byron wrote these lines from a prisoner’s perspective, who has been in shackles for such a long duration of his life that upon freedom, he doesn’t know what to do with it. Like him, we all are prisoners of our own fears, born and bred within us. Over the years, while trying to overcome the fear, we slowly get accustomed to it and by the time realization hits us hard, we become institutionalized. Fear has such power over minds that it can paralyze those, like a tarantula does to its prey. Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ effectively explores the fear of unknown, the boundaries of morality, and the dilemmas of human conscience. Let me warn you right away – It’s disturbing and makes you shiver to the marrows. And you wonder, what if it happens to me?

On a rainy thanksgiving dinner, the Dovers and the Birchs get the shock of their lives when their girls get abducted. With lack of proper evidence, the prime suspect gets off the police’s grip but Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) remains suspicious of him. Tired of the police’s inefficiency, he abducts the suspect and starts his own investigation. All this while, detective Loki (Jake Gyallenhaal) continues his investigation looking for the abducted girls. In the midst of a slithering maze of despair and madness, multiple lives intertwine and result goes catastrophic.

There are many allegories that run hand-in-hand in ‘Prisoners’. The recurring theme is of a religious man losing his faith in the almighty when put to adverse situations or as Mr. Villeneuve calls it, waging a war against God. The violence works as a key parameter here. A God-fearing family man, in desperation turns to violence as a justification to his methods. But the righteousness in him, keeps condemning him for his actions. That even the most decent of a man can turn into a beast for the sake of his family, becomes a defining question. The scene where Keller Dover breaks into a sob, after putting scalding water on the suspect, is heartbreaking. So is the scene, when Franklin on the verge of releasing the suspect, decides against it, for him being the sole key to the abductees.

Symbolism plays a very vital role here. Many symbols appear accompanying the person, thus making a statement about them. Right at the onset, Keller Dover is seen to be a pious man with crucifixes all around him, losing his faith and sanity as the story progresses. Detective Loki is seen to be having tattoos all around his body which tells he might have had a wild side earlier and his character is supposed to have spent time at a boy’s hostel run by the church, thus showing his displeasure at a priest. One of the suspects keeps drawing mazes which eventually turns out to be the key to the suspense, also tells us the state of the mind in which the victims have been, in captivity. An interesting thought that is brought to the viewer’s notice early, that Keller Dover is man who likes to be ready for disasters or as he puts it “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst”. But when the real disaster hits him, he gets caught in it. The morale conflicts of the characters, along with several unexpected twists intensify the situation.

The actors, especially Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano perform admirably and bring the characters alive. But the credit should go to the script writer Mr. Aaron Guzikowski to have come up with a script with such layers and nuances. In his own words, the theme of prisoners explores the state of confinement or captivity of a person, from which he/she cannot escape willingly. Thus, the ambiguity in the ending leaves the viewer wondering about the fate of the characters involved. The movie hits its high notes as the line between the righteous and the evil constantly gets blurred. And that’s what makes this movie immensely watchable.

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