You’d think with a title like Prisoners, the movie might be about the variety of ways the various characters are trapped in prisons of their own making. You’d be partially right. There are a variety of prisons, literal and otherwise, on display in Prisoners. Fear, chemical dependency, knee-jerk-nationalism, guilt, anger, childhood trauma, pedophilia, proclivities to violence, and even religion all get trotted out as possible psychological prison cells.
But Prisoners isn’t really about those things. It isn’t about much of anything other than being a twisty little mystery with sporadic shock value. Like Now You See Me, a movie that is entertaining almost solely because its plot is so illogical – you never know what’s going to happen next – Prisoners beguiles as long as you accept the conveniences that tie up the story into a neat package by the time its two and a half hour run time is through. It’s fun most of the time, but don’t be surprised if your fellow audience members feel compelled to jeer at the screen once or twice like mine did.
If Prisoners is concerned with anything other than staying just far enough ahead of its audience to keep things interesting, it is concerned with whether or not circumstances can cause people to abandon their faith in God. It would be an interesting question in any case, but it is particularly interesting in the way Prisoners frames faith.
Faith, in Prisoners, isn’t just belief. Faith isn’t about adhering cognitively to a creed or assenting to an assumed historical fact. Faith isn’t about simply saying a prayer of salvation. In fact, just saying prayers in Prisoners, like the one the movie opens with, proves nothing.
Faith in Prisoners is proved by action. Even the characters who do the most dastardly things in the film believe in God. They’re just also out to punish God for supposedly being unfaithful to them. I’m reminded of James 2:19 – “It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear.” There are certainly some God-confessing “demons” on display in Prisoners, though they aren’t doing much trembling.
The one thing that no character does in Prisoners is the very thing James a bit earlier compels his readers to do – take care of the poor and needy among them. The most difficult scenes for me to watch were the ones where the police officer was storming into the homes of registered sex offenders, rifling through their things, and baselessly accusing them of wrong-doing. (The fact that this film uses this activity to lead to an important clue is reprehensible to me.)
Dr. Erin Dufault-Hunter once asked our class of Sexual Ethics students how we would respond if a registered sex offender showed up in our congregation some Sunday morning. “These are society’s pariah’s,” she challenged, “the very ones Christ calls us to love. The church should be a place where even sex offenders are welcome.”
The people most imprisoned in Prisoners are registered sex offenders and victims of sexual abuse. Both of these groups are trapped in the past, the first in a cell of societal unforgiveness, the second in a traumatic experience society has failed to help them process.
Prisoners is probably less interested in these people than it ought to be, but it’s more interested in them than the real world often seems to be. This is an area in which the church stands to be counter-cultural in the way Jesus was counter-cultural. We could be more forgiving, more healing, and more loving than anyone expects anyone to be. That would be a faith worth confessing, the kind of faith that makes even demons tremble.