During my first watch, I didn’t notice if Prisoners stated it was located in a certain town or city or state, and I didn’t feel any need to go back and check. The setting spoke for itself, lending weight to the story without any overt mention of how that area’s way of life could add to the emotion of the characters or tension in the conflict.
I imagined the town was somewhere in Ohio, the town name not worth mentioning, the people who lived their prone to saying where they’re from by relation to the nearest big city… 20 miles outside Cincinnati, just north of Cleveland, 10 miles west of Dayton.
Apparently, the film was set in Conyers, Pennsylvania. But to me, the name is irrelevant. The place serves as a stand-in for any rural town in America.
Having grown up in the Midwest, it was easy to imagine that place and the people who inhabit it, as if they lived right down the highway from me. The weather, the family structure, the do-it-yourself sense of manhood, the survivalist mentality, the distrust of institutions other than the nuclear family. It’s all familiar if in a different form or degree.
I inherently understood the setting and its implications right from the opening scenes with a hunting expedition and a speech, father to son, about protecting yourself, and always being prepared. I was familiar with the walk to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving, the parent’s friendship probably born out of the similarity in the children’s ages rather than any common interest. I recognized the stilted walk and subtle tension of Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover), how he was always preoccupied with his children’s behavior, making sure they didn’t embarrass him, making sure they knew when they had done wrong. I could feel the cold, fall rain pouring from overcast skies, like God was wringing out a wet blanket, forcing families into the familiar ritual of putting on the right coat for that time of year before venturing outside.
The setting was obvious to me.
And it added to the pain and heartbreak of the story. For a man like Keller, there is nothing worse than not being able to protect your family, even the death of a loved one is better than facing his own shortcomings in fulfilling his duty to the ones he loves. He was prepared for almost everything, including the apocalypse, but nothing could prepare the man for the inability to rescue his daughter.
This is true for every man, but for a man like Keller, men I was raised by and grew up knowing, there isn’t anything else. Careers are means to support a family, marriage is a way to create a family, the lessons he learned are only as good as his ability to pass them down to his children. Everything else is a distraction, obstacles in the way of him providing for and protecting his loved ones, including those institutions who are too inefficient to do what they are supposed to, like the federal government and the police. They cannot be trusted to do what needs to be done. Only he can do that.
I have most often heard the birth of a child described, by men like Keller Dover, as the most terrifying experience of a man’s life. That tiny baby in a carrier serves as a mirror to their own ineptitudes. They tell me that nothing could have prepared them for that moment, and that lack of preparation was terrifying. That baby opened them wide to possibilities of pain and heartbreak that they never knew were possible and tragedies they could no longer prevent through hard work and preparation. A large part of them escaped the hardened confines of their own protective shell, entered into that child, and walked out into the open, vulnerable to all the world a man has steeled themselves against.
For Keller Dover, driving in his truck after his son shot a deer, he was teaching his son how to become that man. How to prevent heartache and tragedy, how to be responsible to the people he promised to support. But then he no longer was able to do it himself.
I understood this about men in general, but something about seeing Keller in Prisoner’s settings (on a large scale in that Midwest town, on a smaller scale in that run-down bathroom) presented it in a new way. And without much exposition needed, and some terrific acting from Jackman, it was far too easy for me to comprehend how a man could come to abduct and torture another man. And as Keller turned on that boiling hot water, and turned it off, and turned it on again, eliciting screams from the man trapped inside, I didn’t wonder how he could possibly do something so horrible. Instead, I wondered if that dead look in his eyes had more to do with the days gone by without saving his daughter or the loss of humanity for what it has forced him to do.
Obviously (it’s in the title), the movie deals with how we are all prisoners. Even if our body remains free, it is all too easy to become a prisoner inside of it. Keller created a cell for himself, inside walls of self-sufficiency, independence, patronage, and protection. And the movie rattled me so much because I probably have similar prison walls erected, walls built from bricks of good ideals, ones that could at any moment, with the wrong series of unfortunate events, rear up and trap me, making me a prisoner to my situation.
I wanted so badly to see Keller released from his physical imprisonment at the end of the movie. The hint of freedom was not enough. I felt like I needed to see it. I didn’t want him left down their forever. I still wonder if that weak little whistle was enough to free him from his pit of darkness.
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