December 2, 2014 By Shameer. ks

Prisoners of Conscience


Denis Vilenueve’s forte is in making family dramas with strong political and ethical undercurrents. His Incendies and Politechnique can be read as being ripostes to this statement, as the former is sprinkled with political references and the latter is centred on misogyny and feminism. But setting does not allow you to escape from politics to the cosy, comfortable realm of the kitchen sink. What makes Villeneuve appear daring and different to me is in bringing the personal, family realm into close encounter with political, ethical and philosophical issues.

Vilenueve’s latest film Prisoners begins with the get-together of two families for a thanksgiving party. They (across racial divides) share most of the upper middle class assumptions and religious convictions. Two kids from each family disappear and the plot segues into a crime mystery thriller involving nonchalant, if deeply compassionate detective named Loki Jake Gyllenhaal. At the superficial realm the film can be seen as a portrayal of vulnerability that families in a typical US town (religion assumed to be so locked in the cupboard that a mighty, brainy Caesar in the form of a vigilant police force comes in its stead) face to the machinations of raw religious assumptions leaking through the unseen welter of a disciplined, strictly policed polity. The vigilance of the civil society at the end of the film (can be seen) as helpless and dumbfounded beside what we see as the cleverly orchestrated prison of the devilry (negative theology born of the failures of religion).

At a deeper level the film problematises our ethical standpoint as regards violence. Both families tacitly agree on the justifications of Keller Dover’s family (Hugh Jackman) for killing a deer: (did you feel bad about that deer when you shot it?/do you feel bad for cows when you go to McDonalds?). The justification is extended to a crudely scientific logic when Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) says: “deer, if they have too many babies, the babies starve anyway. You gotta keep the population down”. Ralph is just paraphrasing his dad.

What if Keller comes face to face with the religious rationale for extending the same logic to humans, especially, worse, children? What is the ethical line that demarcates Keller’s violence from that of the abductors? Keller encounters this problem by resorting to violence against someone whom he considers as culprit through his own subjective, peculiar reasoning (which the audience can understand) but whom a saner legal reasoning has acquitted as innocent. He is not even dissuaded by his friend and the fellow victim of trauma Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) from ruthless attack of the suspect.

Cut to: the on-going war against terror. The strongly militarized states led by the U.S have always justified their imperial policies and encroachment citing liberation, freedom and democracy. The modern states have orchestrated euthanasia citing the same logic that Keller has for killing deer. It is a paradox that the same states can’t accept the logic of Bin Laden and others for 9/11 and the non-state violence they propagate, though they have religious and ethical reasons for that. The reasons appear crude and illogical from either moral standpoint, though they appear acceptable to both from the other way around. Only those who support the war on terror can vouchsafe Keller’s passionate attacks on Alex Jones (Paul Dano) on the firm belief of his own reasoning that he can’t rationalise to others. It may be poetic justice that Keller falls in the same pit set as a prison by the axis of evil.

In short, the film says, we are all prisoners of our own conceptions of and justifications for violence. It is sheer sleight of hand of the director that he documents these ethical and philosophical questions without marring the structure of a crime, mystery drama woven with suspense and thrill and crafted with brilliant cinematographic and editing skills, which a filmgoer can watch merely for entertainment and without concern about its larger and deeper questions.

I give this film 8 point out of ten and Huge Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal 7/10.
153 min – Crime | Drama | Thriller – 20 September 2013 (USA)
Director: Denis Vilenueve, Written by: : Aaron Guzikowski, Major Cast: Huge Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Sandra Ellis Lafferty

Posted in: Movies