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Film / Prisoners

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"Pray for the best, prepare for the worst."

Prisoners is a 2013 American mystery thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay written by Aaron Guzikowski. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano. It is Villeneuve's first predominantly English-language feature (his prior ones being mainly in French).

An incredibly dark and disturbing film, it revolves around two close families in Pennsylvania as they meet to celebrate Thanksgiving. After dinner, the families realize that both of their youngest daughters have vanished without a trace. As minutes turn to hours, panic sets in — alongside the feeling that the little girls have been abducted.

The police begin a search, led by a detective named Loki (Gyllenhaal), but as leads build with no results in sight, one of the families' fathers, Keller Dover (Jackman), decides to take matters into his own hands. Just how far will he go to protect his family, and just how horrible is the truth behind the girls' disappearance?

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Both revolving around Jake Gyllenhaal's character Loki.
    • When Loki is looking through the notebook he finds at Bob Taylor's, the last page you see has a character drawn on it that looks a lot like Frank.
    • Loki is interested in zodiacs; he is introduced inspecting a Chinese zodiac, and has zodiacal sign symbols tattooed on his right-hand fingers (Leo, Scorpio, Aries, Virgo).
  • Alone with the Psycho: Played with. Keller ends up alone with Holly, who disables him. The arrival of the The Cavalry in form of Loki is delayed but still in time to save Keller and his daughter.
  • Ate His Gun: While being interrogated by Detective Loki, Bob Taylor steals a cop's gun and shoots himself in the mouth.
  • Badass Preacher: Maybe "badass" isn't the right word, exactly, but Father Patrick Dunn executing the serial killer who had murdered more than a dozen children is, at the very least, not a bad thing.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Joy and Anna are found, but, assuming that Detective Loki gets Keller out of the hole in time, his life is still effectively ruined, as he'll probably go to prison and his relationship with his family will be strained. We also don't know how the kids will react to the trauma of their kidnapping, considering Bob Taylor was severely damaged by it.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Not many of the adult characters get through the film without doing things that are at best morally questionable. And then there's the serial killer who targets children.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: After The Reveal, Holly Jones admits to Keller that she doesn't remember the names of the many children she's kidnapped and killed with her late husband.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Anna's lost whistle.
    • Keller mentions his family's derelict house in the beginning of the film. It becomes a critical location later.
    • The maze locket we see on the corpse in the priest's basement becomes a vital clue later in the story.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The random child predator who was executed by the priest. He is later revealed to be half of a serial kinapping killer duo with his wife, Holly.
    • Alex's aunt Holly, who appears for two scenes to get him out of prison and get questioned, before being revealed as the culprit.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Keller is a general contractor, as shown by his work truck. He uses his carpentry skills to barricade Alex in the shower.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Keller trying to get information out of Alex is a long, drawn-out, excruciatingly depicted, and worst of all completely pointless process that includes Alex having his face beaten to a pulp, almost having his hand broken with a hammer, and being sealed in a shower that runs either extremely hot or extremely cold water. For these reasons, the film had to be edited down from its original NC-17 rating.
  • Confess in Confidence: Played with. The man who confessed to the priest clearly expected his secret to be kept. The priest did not report Mr. Jones for abducting and murdering children, he murdered Mr. Jones instead.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster mentions who in the All-Star Cast won or was nominated for an Oscar — all except Paul Dano.
  • Creepy Basement: The priest has one where Loki finds a corpse.
  • Da Chief: Loki has a generally adversarial relationship with his chief. The chief refuses his request to hold Alex for one additional day and breaks his promise to keep Alex under surveillance. When Loki apologizes for a negligent act later on, the Chief responds, "Fuck your 'sorry.'"
  • The Dead Guy Did It: The dead man in the priest's basement, who was murdered after he confessed to being a child predator, is also the kidnapper and Serial Killer of many children with the help of his wife Holly, who is still posing as the aunt of their surviving victim, Brian/Alex.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Keller is one of the Papa Wolf and Vigilante Man archetypes. Instead of rescuing his daughter by doing what the cops won't and taking the law into his own hands, Keller tortures an innocent man without getting any useful information out of him, he discovers who the real killer is only to play right into her hands and get himself captured, and the cops end up uncovering the truth anyway and rescuing his daughter. In stark contrast to the movies that popularized this archetype like Taken, Keller is an example of what it would look like if a real-life father tried to go on a Roaring Rampage of Rescue.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Turns out the subtly introduced character of Holly Jones was behind the kidnapping.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Holly Jones dramatically cocks her gun on Keller when the latter refuses to sip from her beverage.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Keller recites a prayer as he watches his son shoot a deer. He's a religious man, a loving father, and a man who isn't afraid of life's realities. In the next scene, he stresses "being prepared," establishing his survivalist beliefs and general attitude of doing things for yourself.
    • Loki is introduced dining in a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving and investigating the zodiac. He playfully profiles his waitress and confirms her assessment of her boss. This establishes him as being Married to the Job and having an eclectic mind.
  • "Eureka!" Moment:
    • Detective Loki gets two from seeing pictures of a man wearing a piece of jewelry, in one of which he's a corpse.
    • Keller gets one towards the end when Franklin's daughter opens her eyes and drops a few lines about him having been close to their "prison".
  • Exact Words: Alex Jones' statement to Keller that "they [the girls] didn't cry until I left them." This ended up being literally true. Alex wasn't the kidnapper/serial killer; he only took the girls for a joyride. As Holly later explains to Keller, "I was the one who decided they should stay." The girls didn't cry until Alex left them because they weren't kidnapped until after Alex left them.
  • Father's Quest: Played with. Keller thinks he's in a straight case as he turns vigilante to find his daughter. In actuality, while he does go on a nightmarish quest, he doesn't actually get anywhere useful.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: "Make sure they cremate me; I don't want to be buried in some damn box." Said by Holly Jones before Detective Loki shoots her.
  • Film Noir: Of the neo-noir variety.
  • Flies Equals Evil: When Detective Loki searches Bob Taylor's house, we hear flies swirling as he enters the kitchen. They herald the existence of a severed pig head in the sink.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Keller, using torturous interrogation techniques to try to get information on where the girls are. And bizarrely enough, it turns out that Holly's (and, by extension, her late husband's) plan was to invoke this trope in the families of every child they kidnapped.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The entrance to the bunker in the backyard was covered by a piece of plywood underneath a car.
  • Hollywood Law: Loki not working with a partner and walking into dangerous situations without calling for backup first is not in line with actual police procedure.
  • Hope Spot: Two of them. First, it looks like the main characters are going to catch the culprit earlier than they actually do because Bob Taylor behaves like the culprit, but turns out to be a copycat. Second, one of the two abducted little girls, Joy, is rescued but it turns out Anna is not with her, so Anna isn't saved until around the end of the movie.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Keller's attitude towards his torture. His wife makes a similar claim at the end. While Loki doesn't offer an argument, the look on his face makes it clear that he doesn't agree with them.
  • Irony: Keller's torturing of Alex doesn't really get him anywhere. What ultimately gets Alex to actually talk to him and give him the clue he needs to figure out who really did it was the polar opposite — a civil (or as civil as could be under the conditions) conversation.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing:
    • Played with. While Keller never ascribes the pronoun "it" to Alex during his torture, he certainly subscribes to the spirit of the trope (denying him his humanity and personhood) by saying that Alex "stopped being a person the moment he took [his and Franklin's] daughters".
    • Joy also refers to Holly as "it", which makes sense given that she must have come off as a kind of monster (which is true in a way).
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique:
    • Detective Loki has to be pulled off Bob Taylor after losing his temper.
    • This is Keller's entire plan. It's deconstructed as his torture of Alex gets him nothing except a probable prison sentence. If anything, acting as civil as he could toward Alex is what gets him information.
  • Just Between You and Me: Holly Jones tells Keller all about her motivation to commit those crimes when she has him at gunpoint and soon to be disposed.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy: Holly claims this happened to both her and her husband when they lost their kid, so they pass it on by kidnapping, torturing, and murdering other people's children to invoke this reaction in them. It does happen to Keller.
  • Married to the Job: Loki is introduced dining alone in a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving. Toward the end of the film, his chief tells him to settle down and get a family.
  • Media Scrum: A flock of journalists is all over Alex at the police parking lot after his release from custody. There's also the trek of news channel caravans holding out in front of the houses of the two families.
  • Missing Child: Two little girls have been abducted and the main characters are trying hard to rescue them.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: When Rich calls Loki to tell him that they found something. We are then taken to Bob Taylor's backyard where they unearth a pair of mannequins.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The movie takes place in the fictional city of Conyers, Pennsylvania.
  • Not Helping Your Case: After Keller starts suspecting Alex Jones of being the kidnapper/serial killer, Alex completely refuses to give Keller any information about where the girls are, even under torture. He refuses to plead his innocence, either. Most of the torture scenes just involve Alex just staring at Keller or talking nonsense. And it turns out he does know where the girls are, so if he had said so to Keller, much of the movie could have been avoided. But he's not the culprit, and this is a rare case of Not Helping Your Case being a justified trope: it turns out that Alex is used to being treated badly, so he probably refused to tell Keller anything because Keller was acting like the true culprit. Not to mention that his disability meant that even if he wasn't abused, he probably wouldn't have been much help.
  • Not the First Victim: Holly and her husband are revealed to have possibly hundreds of child victims. Alex and Bob Taylor were both victims.
  • Papa Wolf: Brutally deconstructed. The film is basically the counterpoint to all of those movies that aggrandize the father of imperiled children going on a Roaring Rampage of Rescue. Instead, Keller's attempt to take the law into his own hands causes him to do unspeakable things to an innocent man to no avail, becoming almost as bad as the kidnapper he's hunting down in the process. It's further deconstructed by the revelation that this was the kidnapper's motive all along, weaponizing Keller's Papa Wolf tendencies (and that of countless other parents) to make him devolve into a revenge-driven monster, meaning that Keller's actions were All According to Plan.
  • Pictorial Letter Substitution: The title logo has the "O" switched out with a circular maze, which is significant as it ends up being a key clue to the identity of the kidnapper.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: This is Holly's motivation for the child abductions and murders. She has a grudge against God, whom she (along with her husband) saw as the one responsible for their son dying of cancer, so she is kidnapping children so that their parents will turn into revenge-crazed monsters, and thus there will be less souls on God's side.
  • Rapid-Fire "No!": Loki when he sees Bob Taylor pointing his stolen gun at himself instead of the cops. He ends up pulling the trigger.
  • Red Herring:
    • Bob Taylor is initially set up to be the "culprit" of the movie. He has an appropriately creepy personality, he's evasive when Detective Loki comes knocking at his door, he purchased child-sized clothing and is in possession of bloody child-sized clothing as though he's kidnapped and murdered children, and there are body bags in his house that have snakes in them, just to let the audience know what a sick bastard we're dealing with...nope, it turns out Bob's not the main villain. He was just a previous kidnapping victim that imitated the villain because he went crazy.
    • Alex turns out to be a dead end for Keller.
  • Rewatch Bonus:
    • "They didn't cry until I left them." On a second watch, it becomes clear that Alex was trying to tell Keller where the girls were; he just couldn't put it into words because of his disability.
    • Also, the maze pendant pretty much tells you who the culprit is, but you won't realize it on a first-time viewing unless you pay absolute attention.
  • Roaring Rampage of Rescue: Horribly deconstructed.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Bob Taylor has drawings of mazes all over the interior walls of his home, underpinning his mental state.
  • Scenery Porn: The film is shot by Roger Deakins, so it's a given.
  • Spoiler Cover: The poster contains a spoiler: the maze in the "O" is the big clue that leads to the real culprit in the third act. Knowing to look for it ahead of time will make it easier to take note of the maze pendant early in the film, before the film wants you to.
  • Suicide by Cop: Holly seems to expect Loki to kill her when she shoots at him when he confronts her.
  • Survivalist Stash: Keller Dover has a basement filled with supplies in case of the breakdown of society.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The beverage laced with LSD and ketamine.
  • Tantrum Throwing: Detective Loki gives his desk this treatment at one point.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Anna gives a pretty chilling one to Detective Loki after she is rescued. Her mother passes it off by saying that Anna is still sedated, but Loki's reaction seems to imply that he knows that Anna may never fully recover from her abduction.
  • Thrown Down a Well: The Big Bad did this to the girls and later on to Keller Dover.
  • Torture Always Works: Zigzagged. Alex refuses all attempts to interrogate him, including torture, but in the end, Keller does extract a clue that leads him to the correct culprit. Loki, however, managed to uncover the same clue without using torture at almost the same time.
  • Torture Cellar: An abandoned building where Keller tortures Alex for information.
  • Wham Line:
    • "They didn't cry until I left them." Spoken by Alex Jones in the parking lot, which prompts Keller's He Who Fights Monsters streak as he becomes certain this means Jones kidnapped the girls. Actually, while Jones does know where they are, his statement was literally true: the only thing he did was take the girls for a joyride. As he was leaving, Holly Jones "decided they should stay", and that was what made them cry.
    • "You were there." From Joy to Keller in the hospital. For just a second, it seems like maybe he's actually the guilty party, but then you see the flashbacks to the maze books and it all starts to make sense.