by Dan Hoy on Nov.17, 2014
Prisoners takes as its protagonist Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a man we might describe as a blue collar conservative Christian American who values family and self-reliance and views as intrinsically unreliable the fragile, gigantic, global apparatus we all cling to, dangling precariously as we are over the void. We might also describe him as a prepper. This movie is basically a prepper nightmare.
[Full spoilers ahead, like immediately – abandon all hope from here on out]
I say nightmare because all the prepper tropes are here but scrambled, processed in ways that are cruel and perverse. Our first hint of this process is the name given to one of the central characters. In the movie we call real life, Alex Jones is a self-aggrandizing mouthpiece of conspiratorial thought on platforms like Infowars and Prison Planet (with which prepper Keller Dover (and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski) is no doubt familiar), but in Prisoners “Alex Jones” (Paul Dano) is a practically mute and thoroughly broken human being who speaks in barely audible riddles. He’s suspected of kidnapping Dover’s young daughter and her friend, is arrested, released, and subsequently abducted and tortured by Dover, and later revealed to have been abducted and tortured as a young boy by what we were lead to believe are his parents. In short, this version of Alex Jones is not an agent of truth (or CIA-sponsored disinfo-agent, as self-swallowing conspiratorial stories go), but a pawn in the purest sense: he’s a mind-controlled victim whose role is to be abducted and tortured by both the villain and the protagonist. His life, in its totality, is a prison planet.
As we descend into the nightmare, the real hero of the movie is revealed to be Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), by all accounts a competently great detective, but cinematically an embodiment of the satanic, conspiratorial elite, his name borrowed from a trixter god, his body tattooed in occult symbols, his finger adorned in a Masonic ring, his ambition unwavering and methodical, his personal life hidden from us. Detective Loki and Keller Dover share obsessive control tics and a frustration with the bureaucratic incompetence that compromises this control, but as our prepper protagonist’s well-intentioned decisions escalate beyond his value system and sense of self, we ultimately identify with Loki, a man who has no family or identity, only drive and symbols of power.
Compounding this nightmare is the movie’s perverse détournement of very real U.S. government-funded mind-control programs like MK Ultra, which in Prisoners is repurposed into the modus operandi of the nuclear family, most explicitly in the “Joneses”, who are revealed in the end to be the real child-abducting, mind-drugging villains — but this pattern extends, suggestively, to the Dover family (and perhaps all families), in how Keller Dover’s love emanates a warden-like control over his home: over-determining his son’s development into a prototypical man of the house, programming his daughter to follow proper safety protocols, controlling his wife’s emotional volatilities by feeding her pharmaceuticals, etc.
The transumption of prepper tropes here is pretty amazing, but its most troubling formulation, within the prepper nightmare, is that challenging the state monopoly on violence is presented as a violation of the highest order, one that demands a human sacrifice as reparation. The narrative is propelled by Dover violently taking the law into his own hands, which leads in the end to his presumed incarceration (or death — the ending is intentionally ambiguous on this point, the point being that his life is over, he can’t be “saved”). Loki parallels Dover’s transgression when he unleashes his violent anger on a suspect during an interrogation, a violation of police protocol that leads almost immediately to the death of the suspect, and the presumed loss of the only lead in the case, i.e. Loki’s only way out of the maze (more on the maze in a moment). The moral of this brutally negative feedback is that trust in the ineffectual bureaucracy of the system will get you nowhere, but violating the rules of the system will get you someplace far worse. This is a typical neoliberal argument (“sure the status quo is flawed, but the alternatives are surely worse”) and one to which no self-respecting prepper would adhere.
To put the prepper’s relation to the neoliberal state in further perspective, there’s a moment where Dover’s wife breaks what prepper’s call OPSEC (operational security) by inviting Detective Loki into their basement to search for clues to their daughter’s disappearance. The basement is of course where Dover stores all of his preparations: food, fuel, ammo, tools, gas masks, etc.. A prepper’s storage is a sacred place, one hidden from all but a trusted few, since inviting an interloper into this space is to invite risk or ridicule, but mostly suspicion (and of course, Loki is immediately suspicious) — as if preparation for disaster is a kind of evoking of disaster, like the implicit social prohibition against talking about, and thereby summoning, our own deaths. But more generally, any form of autonomy is an affront to the state, which depends on our dependency, and so self-proclaimed “patriots” and “constitutionalists” have the dubious, ironic honor of being profiled as potential terrorists by a state that shares their historical mythology of self-determination. They’re also typically profiled as intolerant white racists, so it’s interesting that within this prepper nightmare Dover’s family is best friends with an African-American (and by appearances slightly more affluent) family.
All of which leads to the central image of the movie, the maze, and it’s put to particularly fucked up use. We learn that the Joneses kidnap children, drug them and warp them by making them complete a children’s book of mazes in order to earn their freedom. Except the last maze in the book can’t be solved. It’s an impossible situation and a sadistic embellishment, deployed as it is as the primary strategy in what the villains call a war against God: their own family unit was ruptured by cancer (which killed their child), so they’ve embraced this rupture as the central truth of life, and go about spreading the gospel of this truth by stealing other children, thereby turning meaningful, fulfilling lives into lives lost within a maze with no meaning and no way out. The movie as a whole plays out like this, bristling with frustration, giving us not clues but fragments of a maze scrawled across the walls of a narrative (as in the home of a now-adult victim of the Joneses who escaped years ago, but never recovered his sanity). Nobody is free in Prisoners, least of all our free-thinking protagonist (Dover) and hero (Loki), whose freedom is founded in control, and who repeatedly lose their shit as they’re confronted with a situation in which freedom is not possible, since control belongs only to God and those who war against God.