In “Prisoners” movie the industry opts for worn Christian cliches

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] went to see Prisoners this week based on the promise of the trailers and the insistence of my daughter. The movie was neither as bad nor as good as it might have been. Intensity and uncertainty drive the movie exploring the fear every parent shares: a child who has vanished without a trace.

You can read any number of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes or a Christian perspective at Plugged In. This post does not serve as a full movie review. Instead I want to note one thing: Hollywood’s lazy acceptance of worn cliches about Christians.

Hugh Jackman Terrence Howard Prisoners movie

Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover (l) and Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch (r) in a scene from the Warner Brothers movie, Prisoners.


Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is introduced as a Christian family man. This is evident from the opening scenes of him reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the emphasis on his good relationship with his son. He has a Jesus fish on his work truck, a cross hanging from the rear-view mirror and listens to sermons on the radio.

If Franklin Birch (the other father, played by Terrence Howard) had any religious conviction it was played well down in favor of Dover’s overt Christianity.

But, when things go south with the missing kids, the first one to lose all composure, question the police, drop f-bombs like he had bought them at a garage sale, threaten a suspect, kidnap the suspect, torture said suspect for nearly a week, deceive the police, lie to his family, and involve other people in his illegal schemes is the Christian father.

That Dover mixes in prayer time and supposed repentance for his acts hardly clarifies things for the viewer. Where are the scenes of Dover meeting with his pastor, men’s group, Sunday School class or mentor, or kneeling beside an open Bible? They do not exist.

Further, while Mrs. Birch (the always amazing Viola Davis) struggles to maintain balance–even once offering aid to the beaten-beyond-recognition torture victim–it is the wife of the Christian character (a role wasted on Maria Bello) who goes catatonic and becomes immediately dependent on (addicted to?) prescription drugs.

The two Christians turn to forms of substance abuse while the two with no demonstrated faith manage to soldier on. This is Christianity in the filmmaker’s eyes.

The girls’ disappearance is staged for viewers via the appearance of an old, dirty RV. We neither see nor hear the driver, but we are treated to his soundtrack: a 1970s era gospel song.

Just for kicks we have a murderous priest who eliminated a confessed child molester and stored him sans plastic wrappings, lime, charcoal or anything else to halt a stench in the crawl-space of the pastorium/manse. Oh, and the priest is a stumbling drunk, too.

The coup de grace is the failed faith of the serial killer behind it all. She is bitter because, although she and her husband were devout, their son died. Their response was not to pursue God in faith. No, their response was to wage war against God by disappearing the children of others. In this they hoped to turn many families against God.

Because, as we all know, that is how most Christians respond in times of sorrow and regret. Waging war against God, turning as many people against Him as we can, and kidnapping random children. Just another day at First Methodist.

Of course this is ludicrous.

Yes, Christians struggle in the face of adversity and terrible calamity. It is also the case that a startling number trust God to get them through even the darkest of valleys. I know a lady who visited prison to extend forgiveness to the man who murdered her husband, this new book (Set Free: Discover Forgiveness Amidst Murder and Betrayal) describes how a son came to forgive his mother who had her husband (the son’s father) murdered, and many war veterans have forgiven their former battlefield foes as motivated and commanded by the Bible. While some who call themselves Christians do involve themselves sin, it is in blatant opposition to how Christians are commanded to live.

The movie tries to explore the struggle Dover goes through, including a scene of prayer just outside the torture chamber. His ultimate moral struggle, though, is never credited to a work of God. We are left to surmise he just got tired of failing to elicit a confession or became emotionally spent. When the girls are found, God is not glorified, no one is thankful for answered prayer, no calls are made to church friends.

In the end Hollywood does not explore the themes of faith as much as it caricatures them. In Prisoners caricatured Christians pray to a caricatured God who serves as a useful nail on which an improbable motive can hang. It is normative for Hollywood, and, as filmmakers should recognize by now, it is lazy.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • Micah Carter

    A very good piece. Thanks for it.

    Oh, and speaking of First Methodist …

    • martyduren


  • Anonymous

    “Caricature” describes this movie well. Though I did get the opposite impression regarding the religious message. The vile and retarded antagonists are the supposedly evul, evul atheists. The movie appears to establish that the entire problem is challenging God. That’s why the detective, the one witty character that shines with passion, has a cross tattooed on his hand. The good Christians and all that nonsense. That would also make more sense given that this movie was made by religious people.

    • martyduren


      That’s a good insight on the atheism angle.

      The main disagreement I have is most atheists I know would not spend their entire lives in a war against a God they don’t believe exists. I may be misremembering the dialogue, but it seems the character was not attempting to lead people out of a belief in God. Instead she wanted people to abandon or hate Him. That does not indicate atheism to me.

      Regardless, I appreciate your perspective. You may well be right.

      • Anonymous

        I am glad you bring that up because that is exactly what irritated me even more. Apparently whoever was in charge of that line about waging war against God did not quite put himself in the mindset of an atheist. But that way I may simply not be giving him or her enough credit. Either way, thank you and have a nice day. :)