‘Prisoners’ is fascinating — too bad about that ending

By Gary Clift

The new suspense movie “Prisoners” is fascinating—really fascinating in several ways. One is that it shows why audiences feel cheated by some story resolutions in general release pictures. Here the movie begins establishing a “clinging to their guns and religion” social and economic class, in Pennsylvania mind you, where then-candidate Obama uttered that famous phrase.

And the movie obviously disapproves of both violence and Christianity. The symbols of the latter are everywhere—tattoos, religious artwork, kneeling to pray, “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee” (played once) as almost the only music in the film, the Lord’s Prayer as voice-over, a defrocked pedophile priest who is apparently a murderer, and a serial killer who claims all the misdeeds were part of “our war with God.” That the chief worshiper is also a deer-hunting survivalists who kidnaps a mental insufficient and tortures him for a week must have seemed fitting to screen writers. Isn’t that the sort of thing working-class church-goers would do?

But then guess what? The movie’s financial backers want the movie to have a salable ending, even if it shows that devout NRA types overcome real evil. And adding this required “happy” ending must surely have depressed the prejudiced movie-makers, who are otherwise very, very fastidious about tying up and seconding every idea and symbol.

Ironically, the film’s ending itself certainly disappointed at least one fellow in the crowd at the showing I attended. He groaned loudly as the credits began to roll. The rest of us seemed to agree or at least sympathize with him. By the end of this two and a half hour film, almost all of it dialog and that reproduced so softly that we had to lean forward to make out what was being said, we ticket-holders had quite and investment in “Prisoners.” We deserved a return. Did we get a fair one?

Well, we certainly got our money’s worth in terms of the film’s running time. This is not to say there is time wasted in the movie. Director Denis Villeneuve has cut it so that almost every scene just about has to be included, and there isn’t any lolling around once any scene has achieved its purpose, either.

The subject was sure to suck moviegoers in. On a rainy Thanksgiving Day, two six-year-old girls from a lower middle-class neighborhood go out to play and promptly disappear. Parents, police, and volunteers search for them. A mentally limited, glasses-wearing guy in a “recreational vehicle” that was seen in the neighborhood is caught trying to escape.

The police find no evidence to connect Spex with the disappearance. But when he is released, he tells one father (Hugh Jackman) “They didn’t cry until I left them.” Dad kidnaps Spex, locks him in an vacant apartment building, and begins torturing him for information.

Meanwhile the town’s detective (Jake Gyllenhaal with the top button of his shirt fastened) is off wasting time when he spooks a hood-wearing stalker, a man who we’ve see sneak into both of the girls’ houses. A broadcast sketch of the suspect draws a couple of tips from a clerk at a cut-price clothing store—the guy regularly buys children’s clothes.

While checking on registered sex offenders in the area, the cop jumps into a hidden cellar in the pedophile’s house and finds the desiccated corpse of a man, a medallion-wearer that the former priest says confessed to having killed over a dozen children.

The movie has a fine cast to dramatize these stories—Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrance Howard. But how do the stories all come together? What happened to the girls? And what’s this business about the plastic whistle?

“Prisoners” will answer all those questions while raising some moral ones (about the father’s behavior, for example). But perhaps because it had to have a commercial ending, it may seem not to explain or be in sympathy with its own odd but insistent consciousness of God and guns in the lives of its characters.

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