The War On Terror And American Racial Politics In The Trailer For Hugh Jackman’s ‘Prisoners’

Over at Slate last week, Forrest Wickman floated an interesting theory about a new thriller, Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano, about indefinite detention and enhanced interrogation? There’s certainly some evidence for that idea, at least based on the trailer, which follows Jackman’s frustrations after his daughters with Maria Bello are kidnapped. When he finds out that the police, embodied by Gyllenhaal, can’t hold the main suspect, Dano, for more than forty-eight hours without charging him, and that the police lack the evidence to bring such a charge, he kidnaps the man himself and is determined, through harsh interrogations

It’s certainly an interesting idea to directly interrogate the idea that Americans don’t cling too closely to civil liberties, particularly when granting others those liberties stands in the way of really primal desires, like parental love, or revenge. Jackman’s character can’t see any upside to the police determination to follow the law, even if letting Dano’s character go might give them a chance to do useful surveillance on him, or free up manpower to pursue other leads. Convinced that he’s correct–and convinced that torture will produce actionable results in a way that legal interrogations have not–he’s comfortable becoming a law unto himself. This is a view of America that suggests things like Guantanamo Bay and the federal government’s use of torture aren’t the result of passive acquiescence, enabled by extreme secrecy: instead, they’re a direct response to very clear American dissatisfaction that may have existed well before the September 11 attacks gave them national focus. It’s a story about complicity.

That more passive complicity, the willingness to turn away, even if you don’t directly approve, looks like it will be represented by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, a couple that Jackman and Bello are visiting when the kidnapping occurs. Howard’s character is appalled when he finds out what Jackman’s done, but Davis’s character takes a different tack, insisting that they won’t help Jackman (except, I suppose, by providing their house as a space in which he can hold a man he’s kidnapped and intends to torture), but they won’t intervene in his interrogation either. I absolutely appreciate the inclusion of these two fine, and underused characters in the movie, but I’m curious how putting them in this role will play out. It’s a tricky thing to put a black, middle-class couple in the position of enabling the criminality of a white man. Jackman may be committing the worst of the crimes, but this trailer is coming out in an environment where a black teenager got choked out by the police for playing with his dog, and where the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin last year in Florida, is about to begin. I hope Prisoners is aware that the war on terror isn’t the only political context at work here, and that all four adult characters recognize that the skin couple of one couple might afford them leeway and understanding that is unlikely to be extended to the people who are made their co-conspirators.