Sunday, October 6, 2013

You don't whisper 'fire" in a burning building: Prisoners and its Guantanamo problem

Warning - spoilers ahead.

Here's a curiosity: a film which can't decide if it wants to be an Guantanamo allegory or a police procedural and ends up falling between two stools.

The set-up for Prisoners is simple -  Hugh Jackman's dour survivalist Dover kidnaps the man he believes kidnapped his daughter and tortures him to reveal their location. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal's detective Loki employs more (moral? effective?) conventional means in his attempt to track the real culprit down.

The film is an interesting genre piece, if a little unrelentingly grim, but its frustrating to see it undercut its promise in two ways, both connected. 

First , it fails to make Gyllenhaal's Loki one of equal force to Jackman's tormented family man. He's a cypher with tattoos, a problem solving device on legs. The viewer knows practically nothing about him save for his job.

Indeed, throughout the film his character makes no claim for either the emotional heart of the film or for its moral compass. In this absence, Dover - fully realised and presented with grit by Jackman - makes an unanswered and undeserved case for both.

This would only be a narrative problem, were it not for the second flaw in Prisoners. It places the Guantanamo metaphor on the board - Jackman's captive is chained and hooded, wears a white T-shirt stained orange by bloodshed, is kept in a box away from sunlight - and then fails to do anything interesting with it. 

This is at least in part because the underwritten Loki, cannot, will not articulate the moral dilemma at the heart of the film by giving it the confrontation - physical, verbal, even metaphorical - it is crying out for. The torturer gets an ambiguous comeuppance, but any case for the rule of law is left unsaid.
To be fair, if Prisoners had confronted the issue more overtly - had put words into the mouths of its leads which framed the debate more clearly - its doubtful it would have got through the studio system. Yet a film which sought to tell truth to power would have been a braver, smarter and better film - and not necessarily a more didactic one - that the one we ended up with.

Sometimes it's the role of art to shout fire in a burning building. But Prisoners just whispers.

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