In this section of the Colossus Movie Guide for Prisoners, we look at the key shots that help us understand the film.
- Keller Dover – Hugh Jackman
- Grace Dover – Maria Bello
- Franklin Birch – Terrence Howard
- Nancy Birch – Viola Davis
- Detective Loki – Jake Gyllenhaal
- Alex Jones – Paul Dano
- Holly Jones – Melissa Leo
- Bob Taylor – David Dastmalchian
- Anna Dover – Erin Gerasimovich
- Joy Birch – Kyla-Drew Simmons
- Written by – Aaron Guzikowski
- Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
Key shots of Prisoners
Keller Dover vs Loki
Keller and Loki are Prisoner‘s dynamic duo. They have the same goal but are often in opposition to one another. That conflict and tension extends beyond their methodology into their overall characterizations. Keller is a happy family man but intense. Intense about religion. Intense about doomsday preparation. Intense in his dealing’s with Alex. While Loki is an analytical loner who is completely consumed by his job.
What’s interesting is that in the penultimate scene, Loki is with Keller’s family while Keller is stuck in a hole. So there’s a bit of a reversal on the initial presentation where Keller’s with his family and friends while Loki eats alone in a restaurant. By the very end, Loki and Keller are together, without even realizing it. So their relationship, both the pros and cons, is a subtle but important through line. Especially when you start expanding into Keller and Loki as symbolic archetypes.
It’s never explicitly addressed, but trees are one of Prisoners‘s important motifs. On the one hand, the movie takes place in rural Pennsylvania. So of course there will be trees. But it’s the way in which Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins made the trees a focal point of the mise-en-scene. They’re the opening shot of the film. And often the focus of random shots or imposed over characters in creative ways. It seems worth noting that the name Loki comes from Norse mythology and that Norse mythology makes a big deal about trees.
Two quick thoughts.
First, the opening shot is a tranquil view of the woods. A deer enters the frame. Then the camera pulls back to reveal Keller and his son, hunting. It’s like the people are an interruption, an intrusion, a danger. There’s something there.
Second, given all the emphasis on religion, I almost get the sense that Denis was wanting to personify the trees. Keller is a devout Christian while Loki is almost the embodiment of non-denominational faith. The name Loki comes from Norse mythology. And his tattoos seem derived from various myths and religions. So you have two people of very different belief-systems who end up entwined. Nature is often associated with the divine. It just feels like there’s this larger, undefined point Denis had in mind but never tells us through dialogue. But it seems tied to the idea of the omnipotent transcending a particular doctrine and being something far more primordial and present than we think.
On Loki’s fingers, he has tattoos seemingly related to zodiac signs. On his hand, he has a cross. And on his neck, an eight pointed star. The star doesn’t seem assigned to one particular belief system but has been used in different cultures throughout the world for many centuries.
The important thing probably isn’t the specific meaning of any of these tattoos but the broader picture that Loki doesn’t subscribe to one religious view the way Keller does. It’s a different kind of faith. Or the embodiment of all faiths. Reinforcing this idea is that Loki has a Freemason ring on, and the Masons believe in a general “Supreme Being”. What that means to each individual can be different, it just matters that they recognize something.
Given how much Loki relies on instinct and how lucky he gets at points, like with Holly’s shot only grazing his head, or when driving Anna to the hospital, he seems almost divinely protected and guided. What’s really cool is that a couple times when we see Keller pray for God’s help, the next shot is of Loki. So the editing even starts to assign Loki a degree of godliness, as if a god were working through Loki.
Loki’s drive to the hospital
When Loki drives Anna to the hospital, it’s time critical. Whatever Holly injected Anna with has Anna on the brink of death. But as Loki speeds to the hospital, it’s sleeting. Visibility is horrible. Not only that, blood from his head wound is running into his eye. There are several POV shots that show how difficult of a time he’s having. It’s one of the most intense scenes of the movie because it feels like at any second he’s going to be in a wreck. Miraculously, he makes it to the hospital and Anna lives.
You could look at this as entirely superficial, just a dramatic sequence that’s supposed to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. But given how much Prisoners has focused on religion and faith, there’s something very “leaving it up to God” about Loki’s driving. Is it divine intervention that helps him? Or is it merely luck? I would argue that the film is so subtextually infused with a sense of an omniscient presence that we should view this scene as influenced by it.
What adds to this is that the main god in Norse mythology is Odin. And Odin is often depicted as only having one eye. Given that “Loki” is a Norse mythological figure, the idea of an Odin reference isn’t too far of a stretch.
Loki’s detective skills
These two scenes echo one another. In the early scene, Loki is at a priest’s house and notices a weird mark on the floor that indicates the refrigerator moves. People don’t often move their fridges. It’s something he could ignore, but, being the detective that he is, he checks. And discovers a hidden door. That leads to a secret basement. Where a decayed body is. We later find out this is Mr. Jones, Holly’s husband who disappeared five years earlier. Jones went to the priest to confess about abducting children. The priest, grossed out, took justice into his own hands.
Later in the film, Holly Jones makes Keller get into a pit outside her house. Then covers it with a car. Keller is essentially in the same situation as the late Mr. Jones. Went to see someone and gets trapped. Except instead of being behind a fridge, it’s under an old Trans Am. The difference is that Keller has a whistle. So when Loki ends up back at the house, he hears Keller blowing the whistle. It’s something he could ignore. But like with the mark on the floor, he’s too meticulous to not check. He’ll eventually discover and save Keller.
The maze motif
Mr. Jones and Holly Jones lost a child and blamed God so started kidnapping other children so as to ruin the faith others had in God. They were pretty obsessed with a maze motif. This resulted in myths about the abductor and a book written about what was known, including the use of mazes. Bob Taylor was one of the abducted kids. But the Jones’s raised him until he eventually moved out. Except he’s so broken by what he experienced that he poses no threat to them. Instead, he’s lost in the maze of his own trauma. His externalization of the maze on the walls of his house then on the notes he draws at the police station is important. It’s a visual expression of the internal chaos the characters in Prisoners go through. Except Bob Taylor’s the extreme example of it. But it’s the same thing as Grace Dover so consumed by grief that she takes pills and spends all day sad in bed. Or Keller’s descent into violence against an imprisoned Alex. Or Alex’s inability to explain to Keller what happened. Or the priest drinking himself into a stupor everyday because he feels guilty for what he did to Mr. Jones.
How do we get out of the maze once we’re in it? Sometimes it can be as simple as Anna and Joy returning home safely. But we see through Bob and Alex that you can still be in the maze even when you have physical freedom. Everyone will be in the maze at some point in their life. Prisoners is ultimately an exploration of what that’s like and how we cope.
We just talked about the maze being a visualization of the emotional prison people can find themselves in due to trauma. We see, over the course of the film, different characters experience different kinds of prisons. Keller’s caught between his rage and his religion. Grace ends up coping through medication. Nancy Birch just physically hides herself. Even when the Birches find comfort in a group hug, they’re still haunted by Joy’s not being there. And then Keller literally imprisons Alex. First with handcuffs then in a small, dark box with only a small hole for light and air.
Alex is actually Barry
Prisoners is a bit of a maze itself. There’s backstory that’s given to us at various points but not necessarily ever laid out in chronological order. So you may pick up on Alex’s backstory and that the house he keeps driving by was his childhood home. At age seven, the Joneses kidnapped him. It’s similar to the photo of Mr. Jones with the maze necklace. The first time you see the photo, you may not notice the necklace. So when we see the body at the priest’s, you may not connect the necklace to Jones. But by the end, it comes together. Or how Keller’s father was actually probably a bit mad and burned into Keller this fear of an apocalypse which is why Keller is such a doomsday prepper. And also why he keeps the apartment building that had belonged to his dad. Or how Loki essentially is completely without backstory. He’s such a central character but we know very little about him outside of being a detective. All that we pick up is through his tattoos.
Prisoners builds out a much larger world through moments of backstory that come to us in bits and pieces, whether visually like with the newspaper telling us “Barry Milland AKA Alex Jones reunited with family after 26 years” or through dialogue like with Keller’s childhood.
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