And justice for none: ‘Prisoners’ and the anxiety over justice in America

(Warner Bros.)

[Editor’s note/update: a recent poll by YouGov and the Huffington Post conducted between Aug. 11-14, 2014, showed that in the aftermath of the tensions in Ferguson nearly half of Americans don’t trust the police or the justice system in America.]

Prisoners is a relentlessly grim, emotionally brutal movie. Between characters, plot and setting, it’s gray on gray on gray; two-plus hours of cruel situations and crueler consequences. The catalyzing kidnapping of two young girls is about the most straightforward and least visceral of its many crimes. It’s also a satisfying and charged thriller which, beyond its obvious allusions to post-9/11 tactics and religious symbolism, brushes upon a surprising amount of relevant topics in modern American society.

What follows is an examination on how Prisoners brushes upon topics of law and justice in the United States beyond its most obvious one. I’ve attempted to minimize spoilers by using points in the film as inspiration without giving away too much of the plot and marking sections which specifically contain spoilers. As such each topic may not be as thorough as it could be. Those who wish for specific citations from the film or to avoid even the least bit of information about its story should look away now. Enjoy the movie for what it is, an intense and well-crafted thriller, and then reflect on its implications.

The Survivalist Movement

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It’s no spoiler to say that in the opening minutes of Prisoners, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) whispers a Hail Mary before shooting down a deer in the woods. On the way home he explains to his son that it is important to be able to hunt and care for yourself. When society breaks down, he instructs, you will have no one else to help you. This establishes Dover as part of the growing community of survivalists throughout the country. Canned foods, water jugs, gas masks, prayer and guns. “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

There are an estimated 3 million survivalists, or “preppers” as they like to be called, in America today. While much of this growth may be attributed to the Internet, with sites like American Prepper Network and Survivalist Singles (“Don’t Face the Future Alone”), as well as shows like Doomsday Castle and the isolationist discourse of radio and political personalities, much of this growth began with the economic collapse of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama.

Whether it be economic collapse, government takeover, terrorist attack or zombie invasion, preppers honestly believe in and at times crave imminent destruction of civil society. They harbor a deep mistrust of law and government. And despite violent crime rates declining and no evidence of any government effort to rid the country of its guns, preppers still keep “bug out” bags next to the door for when the “SHTF” (sh*t hits the fan, a term common enough on prepper sites that it has an acronym). As such they not only stock up on the goods they believe will save them and their family, as well as the arms with which to protect those goods, they deeply distrust everyone outside of their blood. After all, when disaster strikes, everyone who isn’t “us” is “them.” And “they” will try their hardest to take what “we” have. We must be ready to kill them.

Of course some prepper fears come from verified events such as the Tuskegee Experiment, MK Ultra, and the recent PRISM and NSA datamining operations, but most are based upon doubtful claims (Area-51, the Truther movement) and fabrications (the fake moon landing theory, the Birther movement, any attempt to take away Americans’ guns).

(It should be noted that the prepper movement is heavily tribal, especially with the myths about President Obama’s birth and the rise in white supremacist groups with survivalist tendencies, but that’s a different topic which I am not in a position to address.)

Dover’s actions illustrate the extremes to which some people believe they must go to “protect” themselves and their families. His eventual reaction means that he’s not without regret, he just has nothing else. Remove the prepper from his inventory and all he has left is fear, anger and frustration. By casting one of its leads as a prepper, Prisoners portrays an often ignored or ridiculed portion of society with empathy.

Presumption of Guilt

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If they run, they’re guilty.

In Prisoners this is a primary motivation. After all, if he didn’t have anything to hide, he wouldn’t have run from the police. The irony of course is that often the people who expound this theory are those most paranoid that the government or some other organization is listening to their phone calls.

While some of American fears are unfounded, a lot of them are very real. More than 30 gun murders occur every day. Most states allow people to carry concealed weapons. An increasing number allow gun carriers to fire the moment they feel threatened without the requirement of initial retreat. You simply never know who has a gun or how they will use it. Thus when another person confronts you the flight instinct often kicks in. This doubles with police: you know they have guns and you know they have power. You also know all about police brutality, shootings, false imprisonment and a myriad of other horrible abuses, making that flight instinct much stronger.

If they run, they’re guilty. But they also run because they’re scared.

(Warner Bros.)

This presumption of guilt makes any confrontation a potentially fatal situation. The recent case of Trayvon Martin is a horrific example. Without going into the controversial (or racial) aspects of the case: Martin was followed because George Zimmerman thought he was suspicious, Martin noticed a suspicious guy following him, there was a confrontation, Martin was killed.

Now imagine if Martin tried to run.

Running would have confirmed Zimmerman’s suspicious, otherwise, why would he run? If Zimmerman then caught Martin, there would be a confirmation, Martin would likely be killed. If Martin got away it would possibly bolster Zimmerman’s resolve to confront the next stranger he saw in his neighborhood.

Additionally, guilt is assumed through appearance. Zimmerman and others assume Martin was a thug because he was a young African American man wearing a hooded sweatshirt, just as (SPOILER) Dover assumes Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is a pedophile because of his large glasses, greasy hair, pimples, and manner of speech. Granted, he says some ambiguous things, but those are explained by his mental problems. Dover’s assumption trumps this explanation. (END OF SPOILER).

A real world argument could be made that if people don’t want to be regarded as potential thugs or other threats than they shouldn’t dress like them. It’s through this logic that Prisoners nods at the propensity to blame victims. Going back to Trayvon Martin many pundits and observers attempted to sully the deceased teen by describing him based upon his appearance and manner of speech. Some called him a criminal based on marijuana use and school suspensions which had nothing to do with the events of his death. Some even said that he “deserved to die.”  A more common, and too often accepted, version of this is the rationale that women are raped because of their wardrobe. Either way, this is blaming the victim for something done to them rather than the criminal for something done by them.

It isn’t enough to act innocent, they must also look innocent.

Treatment of the Mentally Ill

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In the last several months treatment of the mentally ill in the United States has become a hot debate topic, spurned by the large number of high-profile shootings carried out by people with mental problems. Rather than receiving care or treatment most of these people are cast aside, at times ridiculed, and ignored which, in some cases, causes their conditions to deteriorate until they have no option but to lash out. While mentally ill people face less of a stigma now than ever before, there is still a shame attached to it leaving many individuals to fear a possible diagnosis therefore they never seek help.

A lack of mental health funding also means that those who do seek help are often left without it. Lastly, the easy access to firearms for anyone who is not specifically diagnosed with a mental illness (or, in the case of DC Naval Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, is merely limited in available firearms due to a history of criminal and mental problems) allows unstable people all the weapons and ammo they could ever want. This combination has resulted in deadly consequences far too many times in just the last few months.

(**SPOILER**) suspects Alex Jones and Bob Taylor are both deeply sick, disturbed individuals who should receive treatment for their traumas. For Jones the reason is obvious, his only guardian was also his kidnapper. She may have even conditioned him to think nothing is wrong. However Taylor, who escaped after three weeks with those same captors, should have had treatment available. His attempts to recreate the methods of his abductors show that whatever assistance he received, it was not enough. Perhaps his parents denied him therapy because of the stigma attached. Perhaps the state or private mental treatment system denied or prematurely ended his care. (**END OF SPOILER**).

Prisoners captures the plight of many mentally ill people in this country. We ignore them until they become a problem. Then we shake our heads, lament that nothing is being done to prevent more problems, and go right back to ignoring, which, of course, leads to no one receiving the help they need, and eventually more problems.

The Cycle

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This is where it all comes together.

(**SPOILER**) we don’t get to see what happens after the movie ends, however, if what we do see within its narrative is any indication, there may be some rough times ahead. (**END OF SPOILER**)

The results of childhood trauma obviously depend on the individual, but even children who are merely witnesses to and not victims of violent acts can display long term mental trauma. Prisoners uses its kidnapping story to represent the many thousands of real life children who experience violent or abusive situations. Studies show a variety of effects on these children, ranging from post traumatic stress disorder, depression and sleep disorders, to suicidal thoughts and delinquent behaviors. Even if most children prove resilient enough to survive such traumas, there are still other who are not and some of these, anomalies though they may be, could become violent.

The events depicted in the film are also an anomaly, and we see in stunning fashion the effect they have.


Beyond a few plot holes the main criticism of Prisoners is that it scratches at many issues (those which are obvious and those, like the above, which aren’t) while not thoroughly digging into them.  But what makes Prisoners worth examining is that the issues raised aren’t the focus of the film, but rather stirred up in the natural course of the movie. It doesn’t feel as though screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski went into his first draft with the intention of examining the way justice is dispensed in America. If he did, he did an excellent job of hiding it. And that’s why Prisoners is an intriguing and important piece of work.

(Warner Bros.)

Audiences don’t want to be preached at. Audiences want to be entertained. Prisoners is engaging and entertaining first, making it possible to raise issues second. No matter what any film wants to say, no one talks about a boring film other to comment on how boring it is.

Prisoners isn’t a message film or a documentary. It’s a story, and stories seldom provide answers. Stories raise doubt and ask questions which generate discussions. That’s where answers begin.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.