This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7
Movies can leave powerful, lasting impressions. Prisoners, released in late September, did just that when I saw it two weeks ago. I’m still thinking about it. The film left me incredibly unsettled and disturbed by its darkness, by its power of storytelling, and by the meaning I’m trying to parse out in the thick of its terror.
In Prisoners, two six-year-old girls suddenly go missing in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. In the ensuing days, their families descend into a dark whirlwind of moral ambiguity as the path to the girls becomes increasingly muddied. The parents cannot accept that the one suspect in the case – a neighbor kid with the IQ of a ten-year-old – could not possibly have abducted the girls. Little Anna’s father, Keller Dover, specifically cannot move on once he knows a suspect has been named. In some of the film’s worst scenes, he hunts this guy down and takes matters into his own hands.
I’m amazed at the artful crafting of the film. It was a really good movie with a canon ball ending I didn’t see coming, receiving an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sitting at No. 2 in the box office. You’d think Hugh Jackman, who, as a lead role in the film along with Jake Gyllenhaal, plays one of the girls’ fathers, would be exhausted after playing his deeply touching role in Les Mis, but the man holds his drama well. This is another deeply emotional movie – however, without the redemptive ending by which Les Mis so splendidly resolved – and Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as a father gone wild was incredibly real and terrifying, just as his performance in Les Mis was equally real. (Observation: Jackman played a prisoner in Les Mis, too.)
Promise: I promise not to give away the ending. No spoilers, just my two cents.
Why is Prisoners hard to shake?
Scary movies can certainly leave a watcher uneasy, but some of them are easier to write off as “just a movie.” I went to see this film the night it came out (September 20th), and despite telling myself “it was just a movie,” I went home that night and turned on every light in the house before going to bed (where I proceeded to lay awake and see the images over and over again in my head).
From kidnapping to torture to vengeful criminals gone crazy, this movie is a downer. From the first opening scenes, I realized why the movie sank into my spirit immediately and kept me hooked: for its realism. A family walking to Thanksgiving dinner at a neighbor’s house in their puffy winter coats. Stark trees, devoid of leaves. Rain on the windshield. Two families chatter, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and laugh. The daughters go outside to play. It could be your family.
And after the story’s main drama begins to unfold when the families cannot find their daughters, as a kidnapping proves incredibly complex to solve, as characters reveal less than they hoped and fathers start to act in ways we’d never expect, the families descend into absolute darkness. Dishes left unwashed, pie left uneaten on the counter. A mug next to a mother’s bed that shows up in every scene – that same mug. Crumpled tissues. Rings under their eyes.
Silent symbols of faith
Interestingly enough, Keller Dover is a man of faith. He wears a cross necklace. He begins the movie by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
And throughout the film, we see symbols of Christianity reoccur, though not in ways that bring comfort: a drunken priest, statues of the Virgin Mary and apostles hiding in a basement, a cross dangling silently from a rearview mirror.
Symbols of Christ are here – but seemingly, Christ isn’t.
The situation is bleak. Missing children, as one character points out, turn parents into monsters, turn the world topsy-turvey. Who can think of much worse than the inability to protect your children from danger? Truly, the film creates an excellent portrayal of what happens when Christ’s rule, reign, and power over life and death is left unrecognized.
I’m not sure whether the moviemakers were intentionally trying to convey the message that God has no power over evil – that evil reigns unchecked in our world. It can seem like it does. It certainly can seem like God is absent from the horrible things that happen on a daily basis in our broken universe.
Christ lights up our darkness – but this cast prefers darkness
Whatever their intention, Prisoners powerfully conveys this truth: that without the light of Christ entering our hurt, there is no hope that brings endurance. Without the comfort of the risen savior, there is absolutely no faith that God will work all things for good, and no trust. Keller Dover claims faith, but what good is faith if you don’t practice it? His Christianity is simply a cold, dead piece of bronze that hangs around his neck as he performs unimaginable acts of cruelty to a man who doesn’t deserve it. All because he’s unable to forgive, even though his faith would model forgiveness as the response that would set him free from his imprisonment to self.
God is acknowledged in this film, but not once do the families take God at his word for any of his promises to them. From the moment of the kidnapping, the families of the kidnapped girls trust themselves. Their hurt causes them to do terrible things. And as the plot thickens, they are imprisoned in a world of misery, selfishness, unforgiveness, and hurt.
So I commend Prisoners for showing an accurate picture of humanity without hope. It’s powerful, hard to watch, real. Raw.
What Prisoners doesn’t show is this: in the words of my pastor, that a revelation of hope allows us to endure. The hope of Christ is power over sin, no matter how dark the night. God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. In darkness, relying upon the truth of the gospel gives us the power to forgive.
But it’s a choice to believe and accept this hope.
Otherwise, faith is the chair you claimed was strong enough to hold you, but you never sat on it.