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In 'Prisoners' And '12 Years A Slave,' Human Lives Are Priced Differently

09/07/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2013

What is the value of a human life? Two widely divergent answers were on display in films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last night, "Prisoners" and "12 Years a Slave."

In "Prisoners," from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, two little girls disappear from their suburban neighborhood in Pennsylvania. In a welcome deviation from stereotype, one of the two is black, but otherwise the drill is familiar: an entire community rallies to find them before it's too late. Not once but twice, police boast that "every cop in the state" has been enlisted in the search.

That's not enough for Keller Dover, the deer-hunting, doomsday-prepping father of one of the girls, played as a seething volcano of righteous rage by Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman. He wants to know why the rules aren't being bent on his daughter's behalf. He wants answers from Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the suspicious weirdo whose Winnebago had been parked nearby on the day the girls went missing. It's not giving too much away -- since it's in the trailer -- to say that, when the cops release Alex, Dover decides to kidnap him and force him to talk. By any means necessary.

We are invited to disapprove of Dover's cowboy tactics, but we're also invited to ask ourselves what we would do in his place. How far would you go to save the life of your own daughter?

And then there's Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Detective Loki, who has never had a case he didn't solve. He wants to find the girls almost as badly as Dover does, and not just because his professional reputation is on the line. He's one of those cops you see on TV: married to the job, obsessed with rescuing little girls. No one has to ask why. Saving the lives of innocents is its own reward.

Far be it from me to argue with that, or to suggest that there is anything wrong with pulling out all the stops in an effort to protect children at risk. But the assumptions at the heart of "Prisoners," a fine and enjoyable thriller that I expect to make a dent on the Oscar race, appeared in unusually sharp relief after the experience of watching "12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen's devastating portrait of the slaveholding South.

Here, the life of Dover's daughter would have been as invaluable as ever; that of her black friend, however, would have a very specific price. Probably less than $1,000.

And once she had been bought, her master would have been entirely within his legal rights to torture her in ways that would put today's onscreen child-snatchers to shame. Any slave who raised an objection risked being shot, strung up, or otherwise silenced.

We know all this, of course, but to read about it in a high school history book is one thing. Seeing it on screen, brought to life by a filmmaking team of this caliber, is quite another.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a luminous performance as Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who is kidnapped by two white men and sold into slavery. Unable to get word back to his friends in the North, he spends 12 years struggling to maintain his humanity in a world where he and his fellow slaves are treated not as people but as property. And Lupita Nyong'o is heartbreaking as a slave whose effect on her master's libido destroys her life.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so while not all the white masters are deranged, all are complicit. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a plantation owner who prides himself on being magnanimous, but that doesn't prevent him from breaking up a family by buying the mother and not her children.

Others, like Edwin Epps, the vile specimen of human scum portrayed by Michael Fassbender, revel in their ill-begotten supremacy, insisting on their own right to rape, torture, and kill even as they deny their slaves even the most basic prerogatives. The most painful moments for Solomon come not when he is abused, but when he is forced to stand by in silence and watch those he cares about suffer. Sometimes he is even forced to take part.

The righteous fury that Jackman's Dover feels? The way he leaps into action, right or wrong, to protect his kin? That's a luxury Solomon can't afford. The system forces him to swallow that impulse, time and time again. That's how it breaks him, turns him into an object.

While it's always dangerous to draw universal lessons from anything as spectacularly evil as American slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is a film that challenges us to ask ourselves what dehumanizing systems we are part of. Not just our ancestors, but us, today.

Because every one of us, whatever our background, our religion, our orientation, our occupation, even our weaknesses, would do almost anything to protect our own. That's how highly we value those we care about, and that's how highly each of us deserves to be valued.

So look around -- at the prison system, the war on drugs, the immigration debate, the conditions of the poor in our cities, towns, and overseas. Do you see anyone whose life isn't being assigned a value as high as the one you'd place on your own child?

If so, how far are we willing to go to make that right?

2013 Toronto International Film Festival