Victims and Perpetrators: The Propagation of Sin

You know the most important thing your granddad ever taught me? Hmm? Be ready. Hurricane, flood, whatever it ends up being. No more food gets delivered to the grocery store, gas stations dry up. People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. ~Keller Dover

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There are four basements in the film Prisoners. The first is a finished basement in the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch. Like the Birches themselves, it’s warm and inviting, with comfy furniture and a TV; we see the teenagers relaxing there after Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and Grace Dover’s basement is far from comfy, and the kids aren’t allowed down there, but it’s clean, well lit, and orderly, part workshop and part storeroom. The storeroom side is filled with homemade shelves; Keller’s a carpenter by trade. They’re simple, sturdy, and perfectly suited for their purpose, which is storing survival supplies. Canned vegetables, tubs of shortening, batteries, and bottled propane stand in tidy rows with no wasted space. A clipboard hangs from a nail, holding pages of dog-eared lists.

The other two basements are the stuff of nightmares. One belongs to an elderly priest, who apparently still lives in the rectory in spite of being a registered Level Three sex offender. Even before we see Detective Loki stumble upon a half-rotten corpse duct-taped to a chair, this basement is a terrifying place. There’s no staircase, just a straight drop from the door to the bare dirt floor, and little light. Statues of Mary and Moses look vaguely appalling under Loki’s flashlight beam.

The final basement is the worst of all, just a hole in the ground covered by a piece of plywood. Its bottom, seen by the flicker of Keller’s penlight, is littered with the shoes and clothing of children long dead. It’s a pretty good depiction of hell, a place of darkness and isolation where hope dies. You could call it a pit of despair without irony and without referencing The Princess Bride. But it’s here that Keller finds a final remnant of hope, a potential conduit of grace, something that once was lost and now is found: a red whistle belonging to a child. Keller’s child.

Basements are powerful symbols in the dream landscape. The represent the unconscious: hidden motives, repressed emotions, smothered memories. They’re where people store things—sometimes with organization and intent, like Keller, and sometimes with haphazard haste. Sometimes basements hold things we have no use for, but for whatever reason cannot or will not get rid of (the corpse in Father Dunn’s basement is a rather extreme example of this). Buried beneath the foundation, the hidden items are out of sight but never fully out of mind. They haunt our conscious hours.

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Keller’s basement is in good order, reflecting his readiness and ability to take care of his family in the event of a disaster. Some may say that being a “prepper” necessarily involves anxiety, but Keller is neither a hoarder nor particularly paranoid. His survival supplies are neat and accessible; his storage system demonstrates mental organization.

No, Keller’s primal fears are kept elsewhere, and they fill an entire building.

Why don’t you rent out Grandpa’s old apartment house? Keller’s teenage son Ralph asks him early in the film. Ralph is trying to raise money to buy a car; he’s already earned half and wants his dad to lend him the rest, but Keller says he doesn’t have the cash. So Ralph asks about the apartment house. Grace looks expectantly at her husband; plainly the subject has come up before. Keller replies that the building is old and would cost too much to fix up. But this doesn’t make sense, because Keller could do the work himself. Money is obviously tight for the family, and for a man as capable and purposeful as Keller to let a potential source of income sit idle is odd.

Later, we learn something of the building’s history from an old newspaper article. When Keller was a teenager, he lived in that building, and his father committed suicide there. Keller and his mother found the body.

Eventually we see inside the apartment building. It’s as bad as the two terrifying basements, dirty and decaying, with peeling wallpaper, gaping holes in the drywall, and long corridors lined with half-open doors. It looks a lot like a prison—and Keller’s father once worked as a prison guard. Abandonment, neglect, and destruction have left their mark. No wonder Keller wants to leave the place boarded up. But when desperation drives him, he needs the building his father died in—not just for privacy in the strictest sense, but because the things he will do here must be compartmentalized. They are too primal, too unspeakable, to be allowed to touch the rest of his world.

On Thanksgiving Day, Anna and Joy, the young daughters of the Dover and Birch families, are abducted. It’s sadly fitting that the abduction happens during a time of fellowship, ease, and laughter among friends, when Keller is as relaxed and content as we will ever see him. Disaster often does strike when all seems most right with the world, teaching us not to trust the happy times or to ever fully let down our guard.

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Ralph recalls an old camper the girls were playing on earlier. He’s pretty sure someone was watching them from inside. The families go looking for the camper. It’s gone.

Later, the camper is spotted at the edge of some woods. Detective Loki is on the scene in minutes. There’s no sign of the little girls, and the driver, the creepily spaced-out Alex Jones, can’t or won’t tell Loki where they are.

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In storytelling as in life, what is left unsaid is often at least as interesting as what is said. Prisoners is haunted with implicit but inarticulate things hovering at the edges. This is especially true of Detective Loki. He looks like someone who is trying to appear normal and not succeeding very well. He’s good at his job—in fact he’s never failed to solve a case—but something is clearly wrong. His hair, his mannerisms, his facial tics, his tattoos, the way he buttons his shirt—he is socially marginal at best and obviously coping with some past trauma. Also he has no place to be on Thanksgiving Day but by himself at a Chinese restaurant. When we first see him we don’t know he’s a detective; he’s just some guy alone on a major holiday, chatting with the waitress, friendly but definitely “off.” He could be the perpetrator for all we know. There is plenty of back story potential here, but the only information we are given about Loki’s past comes when he is interrogating Father Dunn about the body in his basement.

I spent six years in the Huntington Boys’ Home, Father. You know the Huntington Boys’ Home, right? Huh? Hurting a f*** like you would be a real treat for me.

The idea of sexual abuse is one of the hoverers in this story—present, but as a phantom, seldom dealt with directly. There are other ways of hurting children.

At heart Keller and Loki are much alike. They have both been let down by people who should have protected and nurtured them, and as a result they are both self-contained and self-reliant. And when driven to extremity, they both lose perspective and step out of bounds, and innocent people get hurt.

Loki’s investigation into the girls’ disappearance is hindered by lack of evidence. The ongoing search of the large wooded area where the camper was parked is painfully slow and fruitless. There is no DNA evidence to suggest that the girls were ever in the camper, and the interrogation of Alex Jones, who is described as having the IQ of a ten-year-old, yields nothing. Keller asks about a lie detector; Loki replies that it doesn’t work when you don’t understand the questions. In the absence of hard evidence, the police can’t hold Alex longer than 48 hours.

Keller tries to enlist Loki as an ally. Two little girls have to be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that a****** in custody, he says. Loki doesn’t answer. When the 48 hours are up, Alex is released.

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Keller is angry and desperate. It’s possible the girls are still alive, but time is running out, and the police still have no idea where to look. He’s certain Alex knows more than he’s telling, and a cryptic remark Alex makes to him in the parking lot of the police station confirms this.

So he kidnaps Alex at gunpoint outside his aunt’s house, drives him to the old apartment building, and takes over the interrogation himself.

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It’s perfectly natural, almost inevitable, for Keller to take matters into his own hands. He tried to let the system do its work, but the system let him down. The basic premise behind a survivalist mindset—which I am in no way criticizing—is that bad times will come, and Keller knows experientially that this is true. Keller’s father warned him not to rely on other people—and in a dark twist, those “other people” turned out to include the father himself. And Keller took the lesson to heart. He is used to doing things for himself. If the economy collapses, he can hunt his own food. If he needs something built, he can build it himself, whether it’s basement shelving or a holding cell for an unlawfully detained prisoner. He has the tools, the knowledge, and the drive to do whatever it takes to protect his child.

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Everyone has moments of extremity. This situation is intolerable. I must act now! I will do whatever it takes to get results! Our passion is genuine and raw; our motives are good. But we are flawed, deeply and tragically, shaped both by environment and by our own choices, and stepping out of bounds to force a situation will yield a mixed bag of results. And in forcing the situation, we make ourselves worse than we were before.

Nothing is evil in the beginning. We have no less an authority than Elrond for that. (It should go without saying that LOTR can legitimately be brought into practically anything.)

If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear….For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.

Later, when Sam urges Galadriel to take the Ring, he makes an earnest and reasonable appeal. You’d put things to rights, he tells her. You’d make some folks pay for their dirty work. Yes, she tells him, that is how it would begin. But it wouldn’t stop with that.

Prisoners is a story about sin and its propagation. It’s about what people will become and what they will beget when they try to accomplish good ends by using power that is inherently corrupt. Characters are actively trying to protect children—Keller and Loki at first, and later Franklin and Nancy Birch. Even Father Dunn, as it turns out, did his best to help. The body in his basement turns out to be that of a child murderer who came to him for confession five years ago. Father Dunn was convinced the man would kill again, and so he acted. What other recourse did he have, an old child molester with a lifetime spot on a police watch list? Why should the authorities listen to him? He did what he did and hoped for the best.

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They all mean well. They all desperately want to act as agents of justice. But they have all been compromised from the get-go by things that have been done to them and things they have done. Their judgment is skewed, their integrity is flawed, and they don’t have all the facts. Their well-meant actions might help the situation at hand, or they might perpetuate cycles of sin and abuse. Probably both.

Even a few well-placed words at the crucial moment can have severe consequences. Keller’s wife, Grace, craters under the strain of her daughter’s disappearance and then rebukes Keller for not taking better care of the family, accusing him of inadequacy if not outright negligence. Grace is barely coherent and keeping to her bed; her nightstand is littered with prescription bottles and crumpled tissues. She has left her husband and son vulnerable, robbing them of an emotional center. People often say and do terrible things when under duress. Does that make it excusable? It certainly doesn’t undo the effects. Shortly after being castigated by his wife, Keller kidnaps Alex Jones. This is not coincidence.

Later, Keller passes the blame on to Loki, accusing him of wasting time and following the wrong leads. You let this happen! he shouts. The words hit home. By now Loki has a new suspect in custody, Bob Taylor, who is just as creepy and baffling as Alex Jones, and just as stingy with useful information during interrogation. Stung by Keller’s reproach, Loki breaks protocol to step things up, but he quickly loses control. Within seconds, Bob Taylor is dead.

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Bob Taylor turns out to be a victim, horribly wronged, deserving of pity. So does Alex Jones. But victims generally grow up to be perpetrators, and we are all victims to some degree. A chilling moment occurs when Keller is spying on Alex just before kidnapping him. Alex lives with his Aunt Holly, and he’s about to take her little dog for its nightly walk. He pauses at the end of the driveway and suddenly jerks the leash up, leaving the dog dangling by its neck. The dog gives a strangled yelp and struggles feebly. Keller watches from his truck, horrified. Alex waits a bit, then sets the dog down. Come on, Tucker, he says calmly.

In general we’re all prone to blame others and excuse ourselves. Other people’s abhorrent actions come from faulty character; our own are due to extenuating circumstances. The truth is, everyone has extenuating circumstances and contributing factors, which get hopelessly entwined with their own wrong choices. No matter how horrifically you have been messed over, or how extreme the circumstances that drove you to take desperate action, you are responsible for the damage you inflict. And that damage becomes someone else’s extenuating circumstances and contributing factors for their own future sins. Eventually, a reckoning must come. Justice makes legitimate demands, and we must do what we can to protect the innocent from predators.

The question becomes, how will you relate to the messed-up, perpetrating others in your own life? With compassion? With force? There is no simple answer. If you are able at the end of the day to gather up the people who are left to you and hold on, then you are most likely blessed.

Prisoners ends in a bleak place, but not a hopeless place. There is scope for forgiveness, redemption, restoration. The final shot is open-ended, just like any given present moment in our own lives.

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