Prisoners (2013) is an abduction thriller which, despite some implausibilities, is a reasonably good film. It is well-crafted throughout and not without surprises, though it’s not particularly original in either its themes or content. To begin with, Jake Gyllenhaal plays what is becoming a bit of a type for him—namely the troubled, ineffectual cop obsessed with a grisly investigation—in films like Zodiac (2007) and End of Watch (2012). Spiritually, and in a few of its particulars, Prisoners is a cousin to films like Frailty (2001), Kill List (2011), and especially The Vanishing (1988). I won’t spoil these films for you if you haven’t seen them, but if you have, don’t fret: serious, suspenseful and unpleasant as Prisoners can be, it’s more mainstream and lighter than these films. It’s also somewhat better constructed than the first two.1 Finally, the film is familiar in that it centres on that most archetypal incarnation of evil in film since Fritz Lang’s M (1931): the child kidnapper and murderer. In this respect, it’s part of an interesting trend in the depiction of crimes against children. On the one hand, the film depends on the revulsion that this type of villain generates in a rather straightforward way. On the other hand, like M and several other recent films, it at least raises questions about the damage done to society by making exceptions for certain crimes by presenting retributive violence as acceptable.
Paedophiles and child murderers have become a last bastion of popular moral outrage in the West. Discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds has been on the decline for decades, to say nothing of torture and summary execution.2 Films like Birth of a Nation (1915) or Stagecoach (1939) have become unpalatable to today’s audiences because of their glorification of racist hatred and violence. However, in the absence of some form of Hobbes’ Leviathan, i.e. a government with a monopoly on violence that impartially punishes crime, humans resort to a culture of honour, in which the threat of disproportionate revenge by biased individuals deters crime. It therefore stands to reason that although we may no longer revile ethnic groups, engage in vengeance ourselves, or even believe that it is ever justifiable, we can never quite get rid of the inclination to view subsets of the population as pure evil, and to feel that they deserve harsh retribution, because this ability is required to create sufficient deterrents to crime in a pre-law society. To put it more simply, we like watching films where the bad guys have to pay, but the diminishing societal acceptability of violence means that the bad guys need to be worse in order for us not to feel guilty.
Gangster movies and westerns often take revenge as a primary theme, but these characters are either outliers (forced into a culture of honour since their illegal activities mean they have no recourse to legal protection) or historical figures who exist in pre-law societies. For ordinary people in the modern world, the sanctity and security of ones’ children is one of the few drives powerful enough to overcome ethical misgivings about the permissibility of revenge. It is also one of the few areas in which many modern, nice people are comfortable regarding the perpetrators (i.e. paedophiles and child murderers) as utterly subhuman, and to place almost no bounds on the punishment they deserve. In other words, the instinct to protect children is strong enough to return many people to the feelings needed for a pre-law society to function. It’s not particularly difficult to think of films that capitalize on avenging crimes against children, usually with illegal violence which is made justifiable due to the nature of the crime. Ransom (1996), Man on Fire (2004), London to Brighton (2006), and Taken (2008) are some of the most gung-ho examples in terms of violence and glorifying vengeance, but even more nuanced films like Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Changeling (2008) rely heavily on the protection instinct, as well on the primitive moral outrage which allows the victims’ agents full license to inflict suffering without limits on the perpetrators of such crimes.
But as the events of the twentieth century should have taught us, regarding any group as less-than-human can lead to gross violations of their human rights. Worse, the license that comes with unlimited power over others can be perverted to harm the innocent. Given the understandable reluctance of filmmakers to take a stand on the human rights of actual paedophiles, perhaps it’s unsurprising that some of these films are based on the latter issue, i.e. collateral damage to innocents, and furthermore that they are based on real-life incidents. West of Memphis (2013) and Snowtown (2011) investigate how accusations of child murder or molestation resulted in the incarceration or even execution of real innocent people. The Hunt (2012) is a fictional film which portrays the witch-hunt mentality that can quickly develop among good people against the innocent when the crime is grave enough. All three of these films look at how the fixation on punishment of child abusers and paedophiles can actually itself lead to severe errors in judgement or atrocities against bystanders, and can give power to people who are deranged or simply liars.
Prisoners, as Hollywood entertainment, is of course not as sophisticated as these other films, but neither is it as simplistic as a film like Ransom. In particular, and without giving too much away, it looks at how the perpetrators themselves have suffered or been victimized, and even its borderline-laughable central villain at least has motivations other than the sexual sadism that is implied (though rarely depicted) in the earlier films. The point is not that films should be more understanding of those who commit heinous crimes, it’s just noteworthy that one of the last strongholds where violent or lethal retribution is considered justifiable, namely against those who victimize children, is being eroded as we move into the 21st century.