‘Prisoners’ and the Definition of Justice

We want the characters to act outside the law, but is that in their best interest?

by Kali Tuttle

It’s hard not to sympathize with Hugh Jackman’s character in Prisoners. He’s a devoted father who just lost his young daughter. There’s no trace of her anywhere and the one suspect in custody isn’t talking. It’s enough to drive any person to extreme actions.

Keller Dover (Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when he abducts suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) and tortures him for information. Jones doesn’t talk, even after days of pain at Dover’s hands. Dover thinks he’s just stubborn or stupid, but we later find out he never kidnapped the two girls.

If Dover had allowed the police to do their job and not interfered, he wouldn’t have ended up in a hole at the end of the movie. He would have been home with his daughter, happy and relieved to be done with the ordeal. Yet, can you blame him for what he did? When emotions take over, it’s hard to see right from wrong.

Frustration Is Powerful

When Dover finds out that Jones is the person who owned the RV that the girls were last seen by, he is determined to make him pay. However, he initially leaves the actual interrogation to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), trusting he’ll get the job done. When Loki is forced to release Jones, Dover is livid; despite instruction to the contrary, he embarks on his own quest for justice. He vows to get what he thinks is the truth from Jones.

Dover is driven mad by grief and takes his anger out on Jones. Even after days of fruitless interrogation, Dover pushes the man to give him answers. It’s his frustration that urges him onward in his investigation. Despite Jones’ obvious inability to understand the questions or the situation, Dover continues.

If any one of us put ourselves in Dover’s shoes, it’s hard not to imagine going to the same lengths that Dover did. It would be extremely difficult not to place blame on the first suspect we see, especially when the suspect is caught in such incriminating circumstances. Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners reinforces these feelings with the raw grief he portrays. The anguish and futility of the actions is palpable.

Knowledge of Right and Wrong

Almost every single human being has an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong. Kidnapping others is wrong. But is making the supposed kidnapper pay dearly right? Did Jones deserve what he went through? When it’s revealed at the end of Prisoners who the real perpetrator is, it’s obvious Jones didn’t deserve it. But if we didn’t know that, as Dover didn’t, would we think it right to punish Jones for his hypothetical crimes?

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, respectively) face this conflict when they find out what Dover has done. Franklin especially balks at the idea of torturing Jones for a confession. His ethical system tells him that hurting others is wrong overrides his anger at the kidnapping of his daughter; despite the crime committed, he cannot bring himself to break his ethical values.

The Birches are unable to fully participate with Dover. After witnessing an outburst of anger from Jones, they lose their nerve. However, they don’t make Dover stop. Instead, Nancy tells Terrence that they didn’t see anything and that from then on their hands are washed of the matter.

An Abundance of Evidence

Up until the very end of Prisoners, I had a small suspicion that Jones was still the kidnapper of the two little girls. He just seemed too shifty and I found all the evidence very coincidental. When Dover first snatched Jones and beat him for information, I was unfortunately behind him for the most part. I, too, believed that Jones knew more than he was letting on.

Dover was not necessarily misguided when he did what he did. Jones did see those kidnapped girls and knew what happened, but he was completely innocent; he was kept silent out of fear of his original kidnapper. But Dover didn’t know that.

Based on just the knowledge that Dover had, it was understandable for him to act in the way that he did. Any father, even if they had not done the same, probably would have thought the same. It would be hard to allow a prime suspect like Jones to just go free.

Justice is Blind

One of the key tenets of the U.S. is that justice is universal. It applies to everyone equally —  guilty or innocent. Sure, it doesn’t work out that way all the time, but that’s the goal. Even when a hardened criminal is arrested, they have the same rights afforded any other citizen of America.

Jones, despite the suspicious circumstances and his cryptic remarks, deserved the same rights as anyone else. Of course, that’s hard for a man like Dover to take, who is certain that Jones is the man to blame for his daughter’s disappearance. Though justice is blind, people are not.

That doesn’t excuse Dover’s actions though. He was told by Detective Loki that there was not enough evidence to keep the man in custody. As hard as it may have been, he should have trusted that the justice system would do its job. Vigilantism only leads to a cycle of violence. Even torn apart by grief, Dover should have not made the brutal decisions he did in Prisoners.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali Tuttle @tuttle_kali2.

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