What is it about Boston and its surrounding areas that makes people want to set movies there all of a sudden?  Between The Departed, The Fighter, The Boondock Saints, Killing Them Softly, Shutter Island, The Town and a handful of other films, it seems that Boston has become cinematic shorthand for “blue-collar, but serious.”  Looked at with a particularly cynical eye one could say that Hollywood’s screenwriters have used the commonwealth of Massachusetts so that they can add a layer of vague Catholic guilt twaddle as a means to lazily give whatever crime film they’ve written an unearned aura of profundity.  That’s not to say that I personally think that’s really happening with many of the above-mentioned films, but I must say I’m getting a little skeptical when I see a film like Prisoners which is set in a Boston suburb called Brockton and which has a kidnapping plot which immediately invites comparisons to two of the most famous Boston films of recent memory: Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.

The children abducted in this film are the daughters of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), two friends and neighbors whose home lives are thrown into disarray the night their daughters mysteriously disappear together.  The police investigation, led by a man named Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), initially focuses in on a man who was near the scene named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) but he is soon dismissed as a suspect based on the fact that his mental deficiencies make it nearly impossible for him to have accomplished such a kidnapping without leaving obvious clues.  Keller Dover does not accept this reasoning and has already made up his mind that Jones is the kidnapper, a conclusion that’s backed up in his mind by a handful of seemingly suspicious statements that Jones seems to make in Dover’s presence.  Holding firm to the notion that Jones knows where his daughter is, Dover kidnaps Jones, locks him up in an abandoned building and begins to torture him and resolves that he won’t stop until his child is found.

Given the decade we just lived through, a torture storyline in a film immediately takes on a lot of baggage even if it’s in a context that’s removed from a national security context.  I don’t think the torture here is meant to be an exact allegory to what was going on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but they do elicit certain questions about the morality involved in harming people simply because one believes they’re saving a family member.  Dover’s actions seem completely irrational, everyone watching the movie can tell from the word go that Jones is innocent and also severely retarded.  Even it were reasonable to think he was guilty, it should have been clear very early into Dover’s torture sessions that no amount of beating, cutting, scaring, imprisoning, or scalding is going work in getting him to speak… and yet Dover keeps on doing it.

To the film’s credit, this does seem somewhat consistent with Dover’s character.  He is, to put it mildly, a violent and impulsive man.  Hugh Jackman makes this very clear via a shouty and borderline overblown performance (a performance that employ’s a somewhat questionable American accent BTW).  It’s partly because he’s a violent man that he can’t seem to come up with a more peaceful and potentially more effective solution to his dilemma but there’s also a degree of abuse involved.  He’s frustrated by the situation and cannot bring himself to just sit back and let the police work things out, so he’s letting out his anger on a retarded guy who’s said to have the mental capacity of a ten year old.  The film never provides the audience with a scene where Dover gets told “we’re not so different you and I” by the real bad guy, but it might as well have.

The morality of the torture scenario is at the heart of Prisoners but its fatal flaw is that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski doesn’t seem to know this.  Instead his screenplay treats the torture material as a sort of largeish sub-plot in the middle of a relatively silly and unrealistic mystery plot.  The film’s third act in particular is bogged down in mystery novel hokum, and the morality scenario is more or less abandoned.  That’s not to say that the mystery plotline is completely uninteresting, in fact I may well have enjoyed it in a different context, but when you start trading in the kind of graphic and serious imagery that’s in the torture plotline, it’s a lot harder to be interested in serial killers who keep rattlesnakes in suitcases.

Prisoners is basically a film that has a strong veneer of respectability that makes you want to take notice of it.  It’s got some really good Roger Deakins cinematography, its cast looks really good on paper, and director Denis Villeneuve does have some eye for what he’s doing.  In fact, almost every scene of the film is pretty good when looked at in isolation, but when taken as a whole I think this project is just really misguided.  It never decides whether it wants to be a morality plat or a pot-boiler and ends up failing at being both.  I’m left with a renewed respect for Mystic River, a film which managed to give its audience both a more believable mystery and also a moral exploration that never has to go to the vulgar extremes that Prisoners trades in.

**1/2 out of Four


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