‘Prisoners’, Explained

February 27, 2019
13 min read

With the rising popularity of crime thrillers, it’s quite an achievement to pull off a sumptuous story that challenges as well as embraces the classic tropes of the genre.  However, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, with his artistic mind, crafted a gratifying crime thriller in the form of ‘Prisoners’.

Released in 2013, ‘Prisoners’ stars Australian actor Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a carpenter who, when his daughter is abducted, takes matter into his own hands to search for the perpetrator of the crime, resulting in a dark tale of vengeance and retaliation. The film also stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who his assigned on the case and Paul Dano as Alex Jones, a young man who is abducted by Dover when he comes under the suspicion of kidnapping the two girls.

Written by American screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, ‘Prisoners’ is built on a strong foundation of a brilliant screenplay, which is aided by the unnerving score composed by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and the gloomy cinematography by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. What makes the film such a compelling thriller is the intertwining themes and allegories. From the complex religious imagery to the deep-rooted character arcs, ‘Prisoners’ is certainly one of the finest crime thrillers of all time.

Plot Summary

Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter lives with his family, consisting of his wife Grace Dover two children Ralph Dover and Anna Dover in Brockton, 25 miles south of Boston. During the holiday season, their neighbours Franklin and Nancy Birch invite them over for dinner. The four children go to play in the neighbourhood and approach an RV that is parked outside a house nearby. After dinner, the Dovers and Birchs learn that Anna and Joy go missing.

Detective Loki is given the task to find the two children and leads the investigation and the search. The team locates the RV, which is found to be parked at a gas station. As policemen surround the vehicle, they find out that a young man is in the vehicle. As they try to conduct an inquiry, he all of a sudden starts off the vehicle and crashes into a nearby tree. The police then learn that the young man is Alex, who is taken for investigation. However, it turns out that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old, and thus appears dumbfounded when being questioned at the police station. The forensics searches his vehicle for evidence but fail in cropping up any confirmation relating to the missing girls. Loki desperately tries to coax a confirmation out of Jones but is unable, and so releases him under lack of evidence.

Loki, pursuing other new leads, discovers a corpse in the basement of a priest of the name Patrick Dunn. Dunn, while admitting to having killed the man because the man confessed he was “waging a war against God”, refutes any argument of him being a felon in the kidnapping.

Amidst the search, Dover is informed that Alex has been released. Taking the matter into his own hands, he attacks Jones.  Alex, in a state of apparent delusion, whispers to him, “They didn’t cry until I left them.” Dover also learns that Loki now cannot arrest Alex, and adding to that he sees Alex strangling his Aunt’s dog and then hears him singing the same song as Anna. Pent up with rage, Dover abducts him and locks him up in his late father’s abandoned home.  With the assistance of Birch, he tortures Jones and uses extreme methods to torments him both physically and mentally.

Elsewhere, at a candlelight event for the girls, Loki notices a suspicious hooded man attended the event. Concerned about the safety, Loki goes to conduct an inquiry, but the man flees. Later on, he breaks into both families’ houses but to everyone’s surprise, leaves without doing any harm. Loki also gets to know that Jones has been missing for some days and suspects Dover to behind the abduction. He follows him where Alex is being held prisoner but fails to find him. With a comprehensive lie fabricated by Dover, the situation is put to rest for the time being.

The detective gets some leads about the suspicious hooded man form a store clerk who claims to know the man from a composite drawing. Adding to that, he also reports to Loki about seeing the man buying children’s clothing – which corroborates with the missing girls. The suspect is found out to be Bob Taylor and is arrested at his home. The police team also discovers that the walls are covered in drawings of mazes and books which have content on mazes and live snakes. The team discovers children’s clothing with blood stains which also include items belonging to the missing girls. Taylor, taken to the interrogation room, confesses to have carried out the abduction but during an unfortunate physical altercation with Loki, snatches his gun and kills himself without revealing any more information. On further research, the police conclude that Taylor was a fantasist who actually had nothing to do with the kidnapping. It turns out that he stole the clothes from the girls’ homes – when he broke into earlier – and bloodied them with pig blood in order to recreate abductions.

Dover, in a desperate attempt to procure information, continues to torture Alex. Alex, quite weirdly also talks about escaping through a maze, which confirms with Taylor’s maze trails. Dover, now with no hope, visits Alex’s aunt, Holly, to find some ray of hope to crack the apparent kidnappers lie. Holly, while conversing, tells him that Alex’s peculiar behaviour was so due to an accident with snakes that he had encountered with. She also reveals that she and her husband were earnestly religious until their young son died of cancer. Back at the police station,

With Dover losing hope over his rigorous torturous session, Loki too becomes increasingly frustrated with his failure in solving the case. However, Loki, with his intricate research work, is able to match the pattern of a maze Taylor drew while in locked up in custody to the maze necklace worn by the man Patrick Dunn killed in his basement.

As the hopes for saving the girls start to slim down, one of the girls – a drugged Joy Birch – is found by Loki. Dover, with a new-found hope to save his daughter, visits her in the hospital to ask for more information about the possible kidnapper. While Joy’s memories vague due to the intense trauma, she is able to mumble “You were there” to him, to which he realizes that Joy might have heard his voice at the Joneses’ house when he visited Holly. Elsewhere, Loki, while searching for Dover, finds a traumatised Alex.

Dover promptly goes back to the Joneses’ to get information from Holly, who turns out to be the kidnapper. Pulling out a gun on him, Holly explains that, before her husband’s demise, the couple used to abduct many children as part of their “war on God” mission to avenge their son’s death. She also reveals that Alex was the first child they abducted. She also confesses that abducting the two girls wasn’t a part of her plan but after Alex had taken the girls for a ride, (in his RV), she decided to abduct them. Dover is then shot in the leg and imprisoned in a concealed pit in her yard.

Just then, Loki reaches her house to tell her that her nephew has been found. There, he finds a photograph of Holly’s husband wearing the same maze necklace found on the body in the priest’s basement – confirming to her involvement in the crime.  Loki then is able to locate Anna, who is being drugged by her. Drawing guns at each other, Loki is wounded and Holly is killed. Anna is rushed to the hospital where she unites with her ailing mother and Alex is also reunited with his parents. A day later, Loki and his team return to the Joneses’ house where they begin excavating the property for more evidence. As the forensic investigators complete their work and depart for the night, Loki suddenly hears Dover’s strenuous blowing on the whistle from the pit.


‘Prisoners’, while being a slow-burn thriller film, also resonates with strong characters which intricately structure the narrative. The actions of the characters result to consequences, thus rating a cohesive narrative.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman)

A carpenter by profession, Keller Dover is man constricted by strained relationships and finances. Dover works along the lines of a tragic hero, and his character arc slowly subverts to the idea of treading on the slim lines of concern and crime. His role as the inciting tragic hero sparks off with the disappearance of his daughter.

As Detective Loki leads the investigation to find the two missing girls, we notice that Dover does not agree with the means of Loki’s methods.  When the suspect, Alex Jones, is released by the police on lack of evidence, Dover, believing that Jones is the culprit, quickly takes the matter in his own hand. This is when his character arc starts taking a concrete shape. Employing violent torture methods to squeeze a confession out of the suspect, Dover develops a deep sense of ferocity and impatience. His dark side sprouts even more, when Franklin Birch shows his disapproval to Dover’s methods. While Birch himself is in a moral dilemma, his resistance to torture sheds light on Dover’s slide into moral insanity.

What makes Dover’s moral degradation interesting is his psychopathic tendencies. In an attempt to save the two girls, Dover slides into quite a villainous territory. His obsession and firm belief that Jones is the kidnapper further stray him away from his wife when he should actually be a supportive husband to a worried and tormented woman.

Dover’s character arc comes to a culmination as he is trapped in the concealed pit of Holly’s yard. The pit, like many other literary symbols in the film, works as a metaphor for the abyss where Dover needs to be resurrected from, where he needs to drift off from the ferocious self of the past.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal)

A consummate professional, Detective Loki is a man who dedicates his life to solving crime with no compromise. In his heated interactions with the hot-headed Keller Dover, Loki perceptively balances his personal views and his professional duties.  Like Dover, Loki too is fuelled by anger and resentment, but his emotional upsurge is internal.  While Loki is certainly an intimidating figure – with his dark overcoat and brooding eyes – his sense of duty is not clouded by intense anger and emotional imbalance.

Religious Theme: Faith and Christianity

The theme which overarches the narrative is that of Christianity. Denis Villeneuve deftly establishes the dark undertones as the film progresses. The first distinctive scene of the film starts which Dover reciting a Biblical verse, while his son shoots a deer. Following this, the camera pans up to a cross, foreshadowing Dover’s grief and turmoil of him having to go through the arduous passage of saving the two girls. Keller Dover thus acts as the Messianic character.

Messianic Judaism is a modern syncretic religious movement that combines the religious beliefs of Christianity, endorsing the idea that Jesus is the Messiah, which finds its roots in Judaism. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus descended the Earth as a Messiah to rescue the world from “spiritual bondage” and “oppression”.

However, as the narrative progresses, we learn that Dover does not act as the archetypical Messianic character. His faith does not align with the conventional Judaic tradition of questioning. It is, on the other hand, a balance of good and evil. In order to save the two girls, Dover goes to extreme lengths to torture the life out of Alex. It is here that as a viewer you ask yourself whether Dover’s violent rage is moral or not. And what would you have done if you were in his place?

Anarchy vs. Peace

As both Dover and Birch take on the endeavour to squeeze the information out of the suspect, we see two different people with two different beliefs. Dover, while seemingly appearing as a moody yet docile man, quickly escalates into being a violent and vehement individual. He appears as the villainous psychopath and a criminal. Dover’s methods of interrogating Jones – a mentally challenged person – are increasingly venomous. He tortures and starves him. The screams of Jones, while is kept in the dark, are haunting. Jones is kept in a dark bounded room. Dover beats and tortures him with boiling-hot shower water, daily.

Franklin Birch, on the other hand, does not seek vengeance for his kidnapped daughters. Although he accompanies Dover to torture Jones, Birch does not approve of his methods. As the narrative progresses, Birch even refuses to participate in the torture and asks Dover to stop the torment. His behaviour does not go without any resolution. While Dover firmly believes in agonising Jones for information, Birch participates actively in searches and believes in helping the authorities and professionals in doing their jobs rather than taking matters into their own hands.

The Ending

The suspenseful and ambiguous ending of ‘Prisoners’ reflects Denis Villeneuve’s grasp of his storytelling. The ending works in both ways – culminating the thematic as well as the character arcs. While the ending does seem suspenseful and ambiguous, raising the question of whether Dover could escape the pit, Villeneuve weaves a rather concrete conclusion to the question.

The ending perfectly fits the puzzle of Loki and Dover’s character arcs. Through the progress of the narrative, both Dover and Loki are shown to be extremely resilient individuals. Loki is hell-bent on finding the two girls, even though his team often fails him, and Dover is put to test when he is disappointed by the police force. Both Loki and Dover’s resilience helps them achieve the goal of finding young Anna Dover.

What changes their paths is the position they are put into after finding out the truth. Dover is shot on the leg and captured in the pit by Holly Jones, whereas Loki quietly listens to Dover’s frantic whistles as cry for help. Here the whistle, which was brushed upon in the first act, is brought into the context of the narrative. When Dover finds Anna’s whistle, it seems as though it was just meant to signify Anna’s capture. However, the whistle plays a larger role for Villeneuve to answer the question in viewer’s mind: whether Dover will be able escape the pit or not. As Dover blows the whistle to call out for help, Loki’s attention is suddenly drawn towards the sound, signaling that he has heard Dover’s plea, before the sequence ends, and fading into black. As a viewer the ending feels open-ended, but to me, it is clear that Dover gets the help he needs to get out of the pit.

Final Word

Denis Villeneuve is often regarded as one of the most underrated filmmakers among his contemporaries, and ‘Prisoners’ is an example of his quite underrated work. A slow burn experience, the film is woven by artists at the pinnacle of their artistic careers. From the gradual intensifying of suspense to the gloomy atmosphere to the carefully constructed set pieces, ‘Prisoners’ is an engaging and unnerving film.

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