TORONTO — A year after the debate stirred up by the torture scenes of “Zero Dark Thirty,” several films at the Toronto International Film Festival are taking up stories of torture and prisoner rights with obvious contemporary relevance.
In “Prisoners,” a rage-crazed father (Hugh Jackman) locks away the man (Paul Dano) he believes has kidnapped his daughter. “The Railway Man” looks at the lasting demons of a British officer (Colin Firth) who was water-boarded and tortured by the Japanese during World War II in Thailand.
Whereas “Zero Dark Thirty” sought to directly depict the interrogation techniques used by the United States in pursuit of Osama bin Laden (and found controversy for, many claimed, suggesting that torture paid intelligence dividends), these new films approach the subject more broadly and metaphorically. By contemplating the perspectives of both torturer and victim, they dig into questions of morality, revenge, forgiveness and human dignity.
In “Prisoners,” a father who will do anything for his missing daughter stands in for a vengeful America: National issues are told through a domestic lens. The Quebec director Denis Villeneuve responded to Aaron Guzikowski’s script because, he says, of how it “raised moral questions about our actions in the world.”
“I thought it was a pretty accurate portrait of North America today,” Villeneuve said in an interview. “It was pretty brilliant the way Aaron Guzikowki was describing tensions and moral questions that as North Americans we are dealing with. But he was approaching it from an intimate point of view.”
The film, which Warner Bros. will release Sept. 20, is about the varied reactions of a suburban community after two young girls go missing. When police, lacking evidence, are forced to release their chief suspect, Jackman’s father boards him up in a vacant building where he tries through different means of brutality to coerce him to talk.
“It was very much in the DNA of the script,” says Jackman of the film’s allegory. “What are the boundaries to justice on a national level? To act or not, to follow a gut instinct that you’re doing the right thing?”
Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a police detective trying to navigate both the pursuit of the kidnapper and the rights of the case’s suspects, says the film’s themes don’t mean the movie is trying to weigh in on arguments about Guantanamo Bay or the treatment of captured terrorists. Rather, he says, it’s about the emotions underneath.
“I don’t think it’s politicized,” Gyllenhaal says. “It just brings it all the way back to the home.”
“The Railway Man,” which is based on the 1995 memoir by Eric Lomax, premiered at Toronto seeking distribution. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and co-starring Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s wife, it’s about a man traumatized years after WWII by his experience as a prisoner of war.
As seen in flashbacks with Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax, he was among the POWs forced to gruelingly work on the Thai-Burma railway. After an incident, he’s beaten, kept in a bamboo cage and water-boarded.
Years later, when Lomax learns the identity and whereabouts of his torturer, he must decide if he’ll reciprocate the same treatment on his former captor (Hiroyuki Sanada). Another film at the Toronto Film Festival, the upcoming Nelson Mandela biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” also focuses on whether the unjustly imprisoned should seek payback through violence.
“These are very live issues,” Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the script to “The Railway Man” with Andy Patterson, told reporters in Toronto.” This isn’t just about a forgotten moment in history. The way that Eric was tortured was water-boarding. When we first started working on this film that seemed like a kind of antique, remote thing, and now, it’s part of how we do business in the West.”