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If you saw a trailer for this weekend’s top-grossing movie, “Prisoners,” you might suppose it is a kidnapping thriller in which a father’s humanity will be stretched to its limits in his hunt for his missing child. After capturing and taking prisoner the case’s prime suspect, how far will the father go to extract the whereabouts of his daughter from the one man he believes knows the truth?

And that’s certainly part of the story, but the revenge/crazed dad theme has been done before many times in film, such as the recent blockbuster hit “Taken.”

Yet that’s only part of the tale.

I’d argue most of the film – and this is not just from the musings of a Christian film critic – is about the battle to hold on to faith in the midst of extreme suffering. It isn’t so much how far will the father go, but how far will his faith stretch before it snaps altogether?

For an outstanding treatment of this crisis of faith from a uniquely Christian perspective, see the upcoming new film from Kirk Cameron, “Unstoppable.”

Audiences are given a clue to this theme of faith from the very first line, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” And just in case they miss it, the filmmakers prominently display an Ichthus (Jesus fish) on the back of the dad’s truck, a cross hanging from his mirror, and then they show it to us again and again and again. He’s a Christian, a prepper, a patriot and all-around stereotype.

But that isn’t to say the dad is simple. In fact, he’s quite complex, and actor Hugh Jackman turns in an outstanding performance as a man whose fierce love for his daughter stirs in him the basest instincts of rage toward her abductor, even while what’s left of his battered faith desperately tries to contain the beast inside of him. He seems to swerve wildly between wicked viciousness in torment of his prisoner and desperate pleading on his knees for the forgiveness and mercy of God.

Which will win out? The father’s faith or his rage?

And in the film’s conclusion (I won’t say too much, for fear of spoiling it), we learn that has been the villain’s plan all along – to “wage a war on God” and shatter the victims’ faith.

It is an intense and relentless film, driven by excellent performances from Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal (in the role of the lead police detective on the case).

It’s also an intelligent film, not driven to quick or easy answers, introducing a few twists and allowing the characters to be genuinely conflicted, rather than cardboard cutouts propping up the story.

I would say it runs a bit long, can be too slowly paced at times. There are also a few plot holes and gaps in logic. It probably won’t win “Best Picture” because of these flaws, but is still a very well made movie.

But from a worldview and culture perspective, what does this “waging war with God” film communicate?

That’s hard to say. It doesn’t mock Christians or belittle their beliefs, even if the Christian character at its heart isn’t a model of the faith. Neither does it portray a glorious victory for godliness.

It’s a movie about a tragedy, a struggle and a flawed character thrust into the middle of it. It tries to be both honest and earnest and doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda. It just tells a story, and does so with drama, intensity, a few elements of horror and a creative flair.

I’ll warn Christian audiences about its content (see below), and I’ll warn all audiences that Jackman’s character doesn’t respond to his crisis in a “Christian” way. But if you’re expecting evil to win in this Hollywood thriller, you’d better think again. That’s not exactly where it goes.

In the end “Prisoners” is a good movie, but only for mature audiences willing to engage with the culture on its terms. Not for the churchy at heart.

Content advisory:

  • “Prisoners” is rated R for scenes of violence, torture and language. It contains roughly 85 obscenities and profanities, mostly of the stronger variety. One of my biggest objections to the film was the actors were far too reliant on obscenity, and it did detract from the film.
  • The film has almost no sexuality, save for references to sex offenders and a brief mention – but no depiction – of “German porn.”
  • The film has several scenes of brutal violence and torture, though it didn’t dwell on it as much as I expected, given the story material. It did, however, reveal the bloody and gory results of torture, murder and brutality, and several scenes are not for the queasy. There’s also a brief scene in which a dog (presumably a computer-generated image) is abused.
  • The film is loaded with religious references, particularly to Christianity. The Lord’s Prayer is spoken in its entirety, characters drop to spontaneous prayer, Christian symbols are all over the place and some key scenes of dialogue deal with faith, bitterness and forgiveness. A sex-offending, drunken (and worse) Catholic priest does play a pivotal role, which may irk some viewers, though he’s not depicted as a “typical” priest or Catholic. There is little occult content, though the police detective’s indistinct tattoos and Masonic ring are frequently displayed prominently.

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