Have you heard this one before? Only a million times, I’m sure. But throw mazes, snakes, and American pride into the equation, and we’re working with another level entirely.
The kidnapping genre has been milked since the dawn of film itself, it would seem. It is that unnerving paranoia we’ve experience that has brought the likes of such fathers as Jimmy Stuart (Man Who Knew Too Much), Mel Gibson (Ransom), Liam Neeson (Taken), and surely countless other examples in the world of cinema to action. In fact, it’s such an overused trope that you can probably hear the likes of cheesy Jason Statham, Gerard Butler, and to be fair, even Halle Berry recently, who deliver an unenterprising “you messed with the wrong family” and its kind to display the “Angry Parent takes on Kidnapper” shtick. But yet, we have it once again, but perhaps on a grandeur (and spiritual) scale this time ’round…
Before we continue, this review is an analytic and spoiler-full article that, while still featuring a brief summary of the film, would be more complimentary if you’ve viewed it previously.
Summary (skip to Review if you’ve seen the film).
So, let’s rewind to about 5 years ago, and take a look at a familiar genre unfolding. The setting is a rainy Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania (can you ask for a cozier [or creeper] setting?). The Dover and Birch families (played by Hugh Jackman & Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard & one of my tops, Viola Davis, respectfully), who happen to be the best of friends and neighbors, are enjoying the Holidays together. It is within this intimate and restful setting, that we have an earth shattering event; both of their young daughters, who ran home to find a little lost whistle, can no longer be found.
From there, this eerie and perhaps comforting setting slowly drives its way into unnerving and claustrophobic territories. As the confusion and concern starts to grow, and both groups realize (whether through admission or not) that neither daughter is just playing hide and seek. In enters Detective Loki (played expertly by Jake Gyllenhaal), one of our main characters. A thorough, intense, and decorated cop, who has a perfect track record to boot. On this evening, he finds a mobile home the girls were playing around, and finds a deeply disturbed young man by the name of Alex Jones in the vehicle (played likewise brilliantly by Paul Dano). Yet, while still being guilty of an attempted get away, there is no sight of the girl’s appearance (in one of the most subtly frightening scenes in cinema).
From then on, the film is about these 3 men, and how their actions are consequential to the main ensemble. Right out the get-go we see that our two main protagonists don’t hit it off right. Keller Dover (Jackman) enters the investigation incredibly opinionated, frustrated (as most Fathers undoubtedly are), and pushy. It is only with great restraint that he lets Loki do his job properly, but not without giving him some specific pointers. When however, Loki is unable to pinpoint any further proof on the mentally young Alex (even after interviewing his once religious Aunt Holly – played by Melissa Leo), Keller’s ferocity and independence lead him to do the unthinkable. In a separate apartment complex (owned by his late father), Keller entraps Alex into a torture chamber until the boy gives information regarding the whereabouts of the daughters. Not just Keller though, within this dark setting he also enlists the help of his reluctant and frightened neighbors into helping with his scheme. On the other side of the tale, Detective Loki not only searches for any clues regarding the girl’s abduction, but now is obligated to keep an eye out on Keller and his actions. This makes for some of the most tightly wound and suffocating tension and dialogue on display in film. Each character is given a chance for development, and somber character missteps that lead to personalized vengeance and cruelty. The film in a sense describes each of its protagonists as Prisoners (not just the daughters) to some degree of physicality, spirituality, or themselves.
The end leads to a surprise twist that shows not only was Alex not entirely involved, in fact he was the first victim to a dispicable group of kidnappers lead by Alex’s alleged Aunt and late Uncle, all of whom had an underground cellar and group of psychopaths in on the mission (whom Loki is busy hunting down during a big portion of the film before he discovers Holly as the ring leader). In the end, Keller confronts Holly, but is then abducted himself, and put in the underground chamber (in a place referred to as the Maze). Loki ends up coming on the scene, and though wounded, ends up saving Keller’s daughter, and kills Holly. As the film ends, Keller’s nearly fruitless actions still warrant his arrest, but he is still at large (presumed dead or on the run).
Let’s get the obligatory out of the way; this film is nearly flawless. In its script, direction (Denis Villeneuve’s first American hit, by the way), cinematography, tension, and acting is pristine. The way the intensity slowly (and subtly) brews during the film is fascinating (and might I add Jackman was definitely snubbed that year for an Oscar nod, as was the film and direction). I could ramble on all day about the technique and the experience that went behind this film. But suffice it to say, I felt there was something deeper than just production. Throughout the film, there were many plots, themes, and symbols that seemed to be very present. As I discussed, on the cover and story itself, there are hidden elements about a maze that seemed to pop. There were heavy themes of religion and loss of faith that were present. As we continue, my hope and attempt is to do a pretty thorough research into these symbols and such (something I’m rather amateur at). And so, if you are curious, or love this film as I do, bear with me…
To be quite honest, when I first viewed Prisoners, while creepy, atmospheric, and as enjoyable as it was, I took it at face value. I had never seen a Villeneuve film prior, and never thought to delve deeper. Fortunately, however, after seeing such films of his like Enemy (a relentlessly symbolic and visually metaphoric film), which starred many a creepy crawlies (Spiders!) for symbolization, it made my perspective of Prisoners change drastically. When watching it again, it was a particular scene with Detective Loki investigating a kidnapper’s house that made me start to look further. In this scene, he finds many bins and coffins. While fearing them to be full of corpses, he opens them in shock to find snakes inside. As I mentioned, it is within these moments I started to realize this film was much deeper (I remembered Enemy’s nasty spiders), and I decided to look to the villains first (in order to get a grasp). As the film goes on, we find out Mrs. Jones and her long-passed husband had initially been a very religious family. A couple so dedicated to the practice in fact, that they would use their mobile home to drive around giving out tracts. When they lost their son, however, that was when their faith departed. Does it sound like a sad and familiar story of lost faith to you? Anyway, it was from then on, Jones tells Keller, that the couple not only left their faith, but took it upon themselves to bring the faith of others down as well. They did so by desiring those of the world to feel the pain they felt. So within their lives, they decided to track down the most innocent of individuals, the children (Matt. 19:13-14), in order to bring down the faith of many. This, my friends, was their life goal. To tear them down, to make them question God, and to turn them into “demons.” It is interesting then that within the lair of this organization’s house, snakes are found. It seems that eternity itself will label enemies of God (perhaps Satan himself) as snakes. It would seem on a symbolic, and perhaps spiritual level, this couple represents Satan and his mission to be an enemy to God and His people. Creepy, right?
Well, where does the symbolism bring our main characters? As I mentioned, this film is showing a group of individuals who are good in nature, yet turn to their darker selves in the face of adversity. There is a particularly creepy scene near the beginning of Loki’s investigation that he goes to the house of a priest, who seems to be at the end of his rope, wits end, and faith. As Loki investigates his house he finds a hidden crawlspace with a dead corpse inside. He comes to find that this man was a sick and prideful pedophile, and that when the priest felt helpless with this knowledge, he decided to take the life of this pervert with his own hands. As was mentioned, as the films develops, even the sweet natured Birch couple decides to take matters into their own hands by accommodating Keller’s rampage.
Now, what about Keller? I believe in many ways his character and actions are the crux of the films’ themes. Because as was mentioned, this was a dark and dastardly plan of symbolic enemies of God, against God’s good people. Yet, my question is this, should Keller even be categorized as such? Throughout the film it makes it quite known he is a religious man of sorts, what with his quoting of scripture, prayers, and religious merchandise. But was there anything about Keller that represented faith, or was he always a man who merely relied upon himself, his own ability, and his own plans? The film shows he is a paranoid man who always had an apocalypse-type cellar ready to go. He was a man who believed the only way to survive was with his hands, hunting, and skills. Even in the films moments of tragedy, we see that his wife, grief ridden, blames him for the loss of the children. And why is that? Just a cliché plot in the screenplay? Or rather a mirror into the self-faith and godlike trust in himself and his ways that had been implemented within his family? A man’s faith is only as good as his faithful fruit. He sits there praying to God at one point, coming up short of asking God to forgive his enemies no less, all the while torturing a man in self-made prison. Does that display faith in a heavenly Being?
While far from perfect in his character, and rather symbolic in his own mannerisms, tattoos, and what not (though I have yet to figure out exactly what those all represent), Loki on the other hand seems to be symbolizing something else. It doesn’t take much to see that this film is putting into question “man vs. authority”. Keller has always been a stereotypical libertarian type individual, with no time or patience for those in authority. While on the other hand Loki represents one who IS said authority. Continually, it is Loki that is pleading with Keller to essentially put faith and trust in the symbols of authority, but that’s not Keller’s game. No, he’d rather take actions into his own hands, and charge towards the corruption himself, no matter the legal, moral, or family consequence.
But this corruption is big. So big in fact it is pictured as, referenced as, and called The Maze. So, what is this maze, when all is said and done? I had a difficult time pinpointing what exactly it might be, and even a harder time differentiating and describing where it’s essence lie. In the end, it seems to symbolize the blurred lines of morality in the eyes of man, when the evil of this world brings corruption. Which option is right: faith without immediate results, or vengeance met with progress? It is hard to say for many of us. It is perhaps why the maze is there. Is it all truly as clear as it ought to be, or has the maze these abominable foes fabricated symbolize the lack of discernment there ought to be when approaching such adversities? For Keller, he believes in individual man’s justice. A justice and lifestyle that has no time or patience for higher beings, and a frighteningly relatable one at that. If you saw such evil take place, how would you respond? The film presents these difficult questions for us to reminisce on.
In the end, while slightly relatable, I feel one of the larger factors is how Keller has lived and continues to live his life. I feel it is taking a shot at American Christianity of today (this Article helped in part after my initial break down of the film, though I don’t agree with all of it). Keller represents the leisured, and easy faith Christianity we so often see. It is a faith that doesn’t cost much, because little is expected of it. Sure, one might act the part, but when difficulty arrives (or even mere life itself), are you willing to put your faith to the test, or merely lean back on your own fragile self? I find it slightly fitting that Keller has a literally rotting house/apartment complex that is of his childhood. Is it a mirror of the house of his faith? A faith that causes havoc for his friends and families, one that doesn’t help rescue his daughter (though he had some admittedly correct assumptions along the way), and a faith that ultimately causes him to put the likes of the equally innocent in faith (Alex Jones) through torture and disgust. Doing so all because of a wrong and paranoid faith. This blurred sight of his forces him into the maze itself, a prisoner to the evil that he tried to fight. Look at the cost of a faith the refuses the difficult and sacrificial price of trust and patience in He who ought provide for you?
In the end, I’m writing a bit of a James 5:7-11 sermon (old habits die hard, right?). There is still much to be said on the hidden themes and symbols of the picture that go over my head, and I’d love for you to share them along the way. In the end, while Keller’s consequences and example is perhaps Americanly relatable and concerning, I believe it concludes with some slivers of hope. As the end progresses, his wife appeals for his mercy to Loki. When he is cast into the pit, all he is left with is darkness and his own thoughts; symbolizing a low end and complete humility, no doubt. But as he is there, broken and defeated, he prays. For once, he prays without prejudice or arrogance. And as he finally does at such a low and perilous point, he finds one item left in the cellar, the little red whistle his daughter and friend went to search for initially. While small, and entirely helpless, it is something. In the final scene, Loki goes back to the Jones’ house and hears slightly in the distance a whistle. Perhaps, indicating that a humble, boastless, and broken faith is one that gives way to the only source of true faith and salvation.