One of the great benefits of going to a movie theatre isn’t just watching the movie; it’s watching other people watch a movie, how a crowd takes a film in and digests it. When you’re on the same page with everyone else around you, the collective gasp or paroxysm of laughter can be exhilarating, enhancing your enjoyment of the film. Some movies are meant to be shared with others, especially comedies; you never laugh so hard as when you share your laughter with other people.
But it’s often the case that you’re watching a very different film than the one the theatre around you seems to be seeing. I saw We’re the Millers last month with an audience who was besides themselves with laughter, while I wondered what I had done to receive this punishment, and a few nights ago, I dropped into a late showing of Prisoners, told not to expect what I thought I was expecting. Although the movie’s being sold as an old school revenge thriller, one man’s epic quest for his daughter’s return, it’s closer to Sam Peckinpah than Liam Neeson, a meditation on torture that offers few easy answers.
In the film, Hugh Jackman plays a man whose children have been abducted by a creepy, bespectacled man who may as well have “PEDOPHILE” tattooed across his forehead. As played by Paul Dano, his behavior certainly suggests guilt, but the cops believe him to be innocent. According to his guardian, he has the IQ of a ten-year old. How could a ten-year-old pull off an abduction in broad daylight? The story convinces everyone but Jackman, who has already made up his mind about the man, and when the cops are unwilling to pursue him, he takes the suspect hostage himself.
The scenes where Jackman interrogates Dano are brutal and close to unwatchable, some of the most repellent violence I’ve seen on film this year. The director, Denis Villenevue, wants to punish the father for his need for catharsis. Jackman believes himself to be stripping away the humanity from his child’s murderer, as he becomes less than human, but it’s his own soul that’s slowly eroding, what he’s chosen to give up for love. Nothing about the sequence suggests that we should root for Jackman, and the longer I watched Dano’s face turn into an expressionist canvas of horror, like something out of Otto Dix, the more my sympathies turned to him.
However, the predominantly male audience seemed to have a very different opinion of what was happening — and of vigilante violence in general. While I was silently pleading with Jackman to stop, the men around me were cheering him on as if we were in a Roman coliseum. As Jackman picked up a hammer, seemingly ready to do major damage with it, the man in front of me yelled, “Hit him in the balls!” Paul Dano looked pathetic and helpless, like a walking corpse, and yet the audience still wanted more punishment. What more did he have to give if not for his death? However, without evidence, it seemed these men had already pronounced his sentence.
When the movie was over, I walked out of the theatre having a spirited conversation on the ethic of torture and the fact that I felt that Jackman’s character wasn’t even the hero of his own story. Although the villain’s identity will eventually be revealed, his actions felt just as monstrous than anyone else’s. If anything, he serves as an antagonist for the detective assigned to the case (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who has to save his daughter not only from those responsible for her abduction but from her own father’s rage. His actions are further destroying his family, not saving them.
Jackman becomes more of an anti-hero, a class of characters who are in vogue in film and television recently. His character was reminiscent of Walter White, another man driven to extremes to provide for his family, even when the desires of his masculine ego are at odds with their actual needs. Walter is routinely confronted with the costs of his own actions, and before last night’s finale, he had killed 247 people. Yet he continues on, building an empire as much as he’s laying a nest egg, a quest for its own sake. As Walter tells us, if he didn’t have his quest for profit, he’d have nothing else.
We see Walter’s morality eroding as he goes deeper down the rabbit hole of meth making, but viewers have continued to root for him and identify with him, even when they weren’t supposed to. Although Walter is, by far, the most despicable person in the show, we wanted him to kill Gus, an evil lesser than the one Walter represents. Instead of hating Walter, the audience has largely transferred their loathing onto Skyler, the show’s apparent antagonist. Skyler routinely stands in Walter’s way, the obstacle keeping him back, and the more vocal Skyler haters have been clear they want her dead.
In an editorial for the New York Times, actress Anna Gunn (who plays Skyler) opined that this is a sign of our cultural misogyny, yet it’s just as much a critique of our relationship to violence. After five seasons of mayhem and bloodshed, Walter becomes addicted to being Heisenberg, the man who knocks and the one who always comes out on top, and we’re addicted to seeing him break bad. Watching Heisenberg destroy everyone around him — including himself — is too thrilling to step back and ask what the consequences of our need for cathartic violence are. All we can do is root for him, because we want to see him be the danger.
Hitchcock knew that his audience loved to see that bomb go off, and when Zero Dark Thirty premiered in theatres, the blogosphere went wild as people had explosive reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden. Although Bigelow’s film is politically neutral, the audience imbued the scenes of his shooting with fascistic overtones, erupting in applause at someone’s death. Zero Dark Thirty became a Rorschach test for the audience’s politics, and many tweeted that the film made them want to “go kill Arabs.” This caused critics to label the film a fascistic far-right fantasy, but Bigelow doesn’t take sides. It wasn’t her film that was fascist. It’s the audience.
However, there’s a great shot in Zero Dark Thirty that attests to the fictitiousness of our own fascist desires. After finally capturing Osama Bin Laden, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is sitting on an airplane, completely emptied by what she’s seen and wondering what can be next. Breaking Bad constantly proves that when we get something, we find out we didn’t want that thing all along — particularly in the scene of Walt rebuking Skyler. To write the scene, creator-writer-director Vince Gilligan used the audience’s words against her. Like in Prisoners, the scene interrogates us: “Isn’t what you asked for? Isn’t it enough? When will it ever be enough?”
Since I saw Prisoners a few days ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and what it means, parsing out the film’s many unanswered puzzles. But more than anything, I can’t stop worrying what it means for us.