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Film / Prisoners

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It's not a happy film.

Prisoners is a 2013 American thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay written by Aaron Guzikowski. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Paul Dano. It tells the story of the abduction of the two youngest daughters of two families, and the resulting search to find them, both by the police, led by a detective named Loki (played by Gyllenhaal), and by Keller Dover (played by Jackman), the increasingly desperate father of one of the girls.

The film was well-received, particularly for its performances and cinematography - it got cinematographer Roger Deakins his twelfth Best Cinematography nomination at the 86th Academy Awards. It is also incredibly dark, par for the course for Villeneuve.

Character tropes go on to the Characters Sheet.


This film provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • When detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) 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 has zodiacal sign symbols tattooed on his right-hand fingers (Leo, Scorpio, Aries, Virgo). Jake Gyllenhaal starred in Zodiac.
  • Adult Fear: Very much so for the parents of the little girls abducted.
  • 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.
  • Artistic Licence – 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. But it does make for good drama.
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  • 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, he will still go to prison for what he did to Alex.
    • On top of that Keller's relationship with his family would be strained.
    • And all of that is assuming that Anna and Joy won't turn out like Bob Taylor in the long run, which is implied to be the case with Anna at least, given her Thousand-Yard Stare to Detective Loki.
  • 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.
    • The maze locket we see on the corpse in the priest's basement becomes a vital clue later in the story.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The film includes some very disturbing torture scenes which can make for uncomfortable viewing. To put it into perspective, the film had to be edited down from its original rating, which was NC-17.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: "They didn't cry until I left them." Literally true. Alex Jones only took the girls for a joyride. He's not the kidnapper/serial killer. 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.
  • "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 car.
  • 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 seem to be getting 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 human the moment he took [his and Franklin's] daughters".
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique:
    • Detective Loki has to be pulled off Bob Taylor after losing his temper.
    • And 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.
  • 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.
  • Papa Wolf: Brutally deconstructed. "Prisoners" is basically the counterpoint to all of those movies that engrandize 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 hunts in the process.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: 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.
  • 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: Not at all. Alex certainly knows more than he's telling about where the girls are, but he's already incredibly traumatized from years of suffering at the Jones' hands; being cruel to him is exactly the wrong thing to do to get answers.
  • Torture Cellar: An abandoned building where Keller tortures Alex for information.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: This has to be one of the few examples of a poster containing spoilers: the maze in the "O" is a big clue, especially if you notice the pendant around the corpse's neck the first time you see it.
  • Wham Line:
    • "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.
    • Earlier in the film, "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 Alex Jones 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.


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