Welcome to the colossal explanation of Prisoners. What follows are the vital details of Prisoners studied, analyzed, deconstructed, dissected, unraveled, and presented for your review. What happened? Why it happened? Let’s get some answers. Check out the rest of our movie guide for Prisoners.
Table of Contents
The Quick Explanation
The main story of Prisoners is the kidnapping of two young girls. But the movie as a whole is an examination of the kinds of prisons people find themselves in—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Mazes end up being a bigger deal than you’d probably expect. The whole concept of a maze is that people become lost in the convolutions and complications of the structure. Prisoners puts that concept onto how people struggle to work through and escape from their traumas. Whether that’s the death of a child, the loss of faith in God, discovering a parent who has committed suicide, murdering a murderer, having your child abducted, torturing someone you know is guilty but won’t confess, or a high-stakes job where lives are on the line.
That idea of the maze goes beyond the characters to the structure of the story. Prisoners could have presented information in the way most movies do—stacking details in a chronological, linear fashion that’s digestible and allows viewers to go from a place of total ignorance to a place of complete understanding. Instead, it purposefully scatters important details throughout the story, without chronological context, meaning it’s easy to forget them or not connect them the way we should connect them. This is done in order to have Prisoners become a narrative maze. The seemingly simple progress of the story is an artistic choice to create the sense of an itch you can’t quite scratch, that there’s more going on than you may have realized. Denis Villeneuve and company accomplished this by placing key backstory and exposition details throughout the movie without ever having a scene that clearly ties them all together. Meaning it’s on the viewer to actively complete the few missing pieces of the puzzle.
There are two more layers that make Prisoners an even deeper kind of cinematic dive. One is thematic, the other is…well…for lack of a better word, pretentious.
Thematically—beyond mazes—religion and trees are huge motifs. The main villain is in a war against the Christian God, while the hero is named after a god of Norse mythology. There are characters named Grace and Joy. Many times throughout the film, there’s an emphasis on forests and trees. What a coincidence that Joy’s last name is “Birch” (a very common tree in America). There’s something being said in this collision between civilization and nature, Christianity and the “Old Gods.”
The pretentious stuff gets at the construction of the story. The last shot of the movie is Loki, at night, hearing a faint whistle. We know it’s coming from Keller Dover, trapped underground. Unfortunately, Loki doesn’t know that. There’s tension as Loki hears the whistle but dismisses it, hears it again, but dismisses it again, before hearing it another time. But before we see him decide to investigate or leave—the movie ends. We’re left with the question of, “Does Loki save Keller or not?” Maybe the most impressive thing to me about Prisoners is that almost everything that happens in the movie is a clue for Loki. The question is will he put it all together and solve the puzzle? Which really is a question for us. Have we been paying attention to all the clues that point to whether Loki will or won’t find Keller?
- 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
Why it’s called Prisoners
The title is simple but that simplicity can disarm you. At first, we might think it applies to the abduction of Joy and Anna. They’re prisoners, right? But then midway through the movie, Keller Dover kidnaps Alex Jones and keeps Alex prisoner. And what do you know, at the end of the movie, Keller’s imprisoned by Holly Jones, Alex’s “aunt”. You might think that’s the end of it.
But the more you dig into Prisoners it eventually becomes clear as day that the entire movie is this layered exploration of various types of prisons: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Beyond that, the story plays out in such a way that it intentionally leaves viewers to put together key details. Compare this to other crime thrillers like Silence of the Lambs or Seven or Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Those three movies do the normal thing of stacking information so that as the plot progresses we feel more knowledgeable and empowered about what’s going on. You start the movie in a place of ignorance but end with a sense of superiority in understanding the who, what, when, how, and why.
But Prisoners doesn’t neatly stack information. Instead, it gives you a pile of puzzle pieces. If you want to get the full picture of the story, you have to unite the fragments. In this way, the movie itself becomes a bit of a prison, a kind of labyrinth we can lose ourselves in. This is purposefully meta, as midway through the film the motif of the “maze” is introduced. At first, the maze might seem like nothing more than the ravings of a mad man, put into the script to add to the mystery and tension. But, like the title, things aren’t always so simple…
Explaining the plot of Prisoners
The plot in chronological order
To talk about Prisoners, it helps if we un-maze the story by laying out its key events in chronological order.
- Back in the 80s, Holly Jones and her husband are devout Christians.
- Their son—still a child—dies, causing them tremendous grief. Their pain turns to anger at God, as such tragedy must have been His will. What happens next Holly eventually describes as, “Making children disappear is the war we wage with God. Makes people lose their faith.”
- In August of 1987, they kidnap a boy named Barry. They rename him Alex and raise him under the guise that he’s their nephew and they adopted him after his parents died in an accident. They drug him, a lot.
- A 1987 newspaper article about Barry mentions there might be a serial child abductor and the FBI are involved in the case.
- Years pass and the Joneses abduct and murder over a dozen other children. An FBI agent writes a book called Finding the Invisible Man, which details the theory about this serial abductor in the Pennsylvania area and the abductor’s obsession with mazes.
- At some point, the Joneses had kidnapped Bob Taylor. Taylor eventually leaves the home, either by escape or indifference from his captors (maybe due to age). He is mentally broken by and obsessed with his own abduction.
- 5 years before the events of the movie, Holly’s husband, Mr. Jones, goes to the church and confesses his sins. The Father, horrified, kidnaps Jones and leaves him tied up in the basement to die (add that to the count of characters who qualify as a prisoner).
- Because Holly can’t steal children easily on her own, fewer children go missing.
- The movie starts.
- Alex drives his RV to the house he had been abducted from in 1987, the home of his actual parents. It happens to be near the Birch house, where the Dovers celebrate Thanksgiving.
- Joy and Anna see the RV while on a walk with their siblings, Ralph and Eliza. Because Joy and Anna play on the RV, Alex keys in on them.
- Joy and Anna leave the Birch’s to find Anna’s missing whistle. Alex, nostalgic about his own childhood, tries to play with the girls in the RV. Ends up bringing them home. There, Holly does what crazy-psycho-child-snatchers do. Alex, terrified, drives away from the home. Is arrested as the prime suspect.
- After the police let Alex go, Keller kidnaps Alex. Because Alex is missing, Holly doesn’t leave the girls in the hole to die but brings them into the house to keep her company. That choice allows the girls to eventually survive the ordeal.
- Loki goes to the Father’s house, discovers a secret passage behind a refrigerator, finds, in this hidden basement, the body of Mr. Jones (identity unknown to Loki).
- Bob Taylor hears about the girls gone missing and “plays” kidnapper by doing weird stuff like showing up at the vigil and stealing clothes and burying mannequins in his yard (in an equivalent spot to where the hole is at Holly’s house). He ends up arrested then commits suicide because Loki’s loss of control allows Taylor to seize a gun from an officer.
- Alex succumbs to Keller’s torture and mentions a maze, so Keller goes to Holly’s house to see if she will reveal something about a maze. Unbeknownst to him, Joy and Anna are in another room and Joy sees him/hears him. Holly offers Keller tea, which would probably be drugged (we later see she kept a jar of drugged liquid in the fridge). But a newspaper on the table catches Keller’s eye as it mentions Taylor’s suicide. Enraged, Keller leaves before Holly can capture him.
- Joy and Anna attempt to escape, but only Joy is successful. In the hospital, Joy says to Keller, “You were there,” which Keller realizes means Holly’s house and that Holly wasn’t an innocent old lady. We then get the final showdown that involves Keller’s imprisonment and Loki’s heroics. We end with Loki either saving Keller or Keller dying underground.
Did Alex actually take Joy and Anna?
While Alex is a victim, he can be a dick. There’s a reason that scriptwriter Aaron Guzikowski and director Denis Villeneuve included the scene of Alex yanking the dog off the ground by the leash to watch it choke and kick. It’s pretty well-known that the victims of abuse are prone to abusing others.
Among 747 males the risk of being a perpetrator was positively correlated with reported sexual abuse victim experiences. The overall rate of having been a victim was 35% for perpetrators and 11% for non-perpetrators.Source
So the answer to the question of “Did Alex actually take Anna and Joy?” is yes. We know this for a few reasons. We know he was in the area, in the van. We know the girls were interested in the van. And later, Alex tells Keller “They didn’t cry until I left them” (more on that in the next section). Prisoners never shows us the abduction or has someone explain outright what happened. Instead, it leaves a few context clues there for us to piece things together.
The girls went to Anna’s home to find her whistle. Got it (which is why Keller finds it in the hole at the end). But on the way back they saw the van and decided to play on it since their older siblings weren’t there to tell them no. Alex invited them into the van. Then took them back to Holly. Holly preceded to do crazy Holly things.
Bob Taylor didn’t have the opportunity. He’s a red herring that creates doubt about Alex. He’s only reacting to the abduction because it reminds him of his own and he starts to copycat, reliving the nightmare of what he experienced with Holly and her husband. He’s thematically relevant to Prisoners but not crucial to what happens and how it happens.
Holly eventually admits to Keller she can’t really abduct kids without her husband so hasn’t been as active. So it’s unlikely she suddenly appeared and seized the girls. If that was the case, Alex’s “They didn’t cry until I left them” wouldn’t be meaningful or even logical.
And while Alex may have initially had innocent intentions with Anna and Joy, to pretend he was a child again, free from the burden of his theft, he had to have known bringing them back to Holly wouldn’t end well. He isn’t innocent here. If he was, then he wouldn’t have continuously lied to the police and Keller. He’d have explained what happened. But the same casual way he decided to choke the dog, he probably decided to bring the girls back to Holly.
This can be the complicated nature of someone who has been hurt as substantially as Alex has been hurt. Their plight is immense and it can drive them to do unto others as has been done unto them.
Why didn’t Alex confess to the police or Keller?
The answer to this question isn’t actually explained, but it is shown. There’s a second “Alex” in Prisoners. That’s Bob Taylor, one of the many children Holly and her husband had abducted. Taylor was lucky enough to have survived (others did not), having escaped (according to exposition from Loki) after 3 weeks.
Both Taylor and Alex are old enough that they could physically move beyond what happened to them. Yet, psychologically, neither can. Even though Taylor lives somewhere else, it seems all he thinks about is Holly and her husband. He’s burying mannequins in his yard. Obsessively drawing mazes on the walls because he can’t stop reading an FBI agent’s book about the mysterious child abductor, known as the Invisible Man, who was never caught (and who was actually Holly and her husband). Splashing pigs blood on children’s clothes he then locks in boxes with snakes. All as a “best imitation” of his abductors.
When Loki brings Taylor in, Taylor can’t just explain what happened and why. Instead, he draws a maze. That’s the only way he can communicate to Loki where the girls might be, what happened to him, etc. How does one start to put into words something that’s as cosmically horrific as being stolen and everything that follows?
Alex is in a similar situation. He clearly remembers something about his life before the abduction, otherwise he wouldn’t park at his old house. Yet he still lives with Holly. That says a lot about his mental state, the degree of Stockholm Syndrome he’s experiencing. With all the opportunity to gush to the police about what happened—he stays silent. And then refuses to reveal anything to Keller, despite the constant torture, despite Keller’s utter desperation and desolation. Like Taylor, Alex is both influenced by his abductor and struggling to speak on something that is too terrible to express.
At their first encounter, in the parking lot of the police station, Alex toys with Keller, much like he did the dog, by saying, “They didn’t cry until I left them.” He knew what he was doing. Right before the altercation with Keller, we witnessed a stare down between Alex and Loki after Loki had spent hours belittling, demeaning, and flexing on Alex in the interrogation room. Alex couldn’t do anything to Loki, but when Keller comes barging in and grabs Alex—Alex could hurt Keller. So does.
But sometime during Keller’s torture of Alex, the dynamic changes. It’s no longer Alex being the byproduct of Holly and her husband, or being cruel just to be cruel. He’s reduced to a scared child who finds it impossible to provide the logic of language to the absurdity of the life he’s been forced to live. He’s essentially frozen by cognitive dissonance. That’s why all Alex can eventually muster, even when it’s his life on the line, is, “They’re in the maze.”
This is reinforced later by Joy’s struggles to explain what had happened to her, only able to look at Keller and say, “You were there…. It put tape on my mouth.” But in the moments before she speaks, we see Joy’s memory of escaping, the flashes of being in the house, on the ground, someone leaving the room, the book of mazes they had to complete, running away. Despite her knowing all this, remembering all of this, what does she express? Nothing more than chilling fragments. She was there less than a week. Now imagine Taylor and Alex being there for years and years.
And just to put a bow on it, when Grace brings Anna to see Loki, a similar silence occurs. This is the man who saved Anna, and Anna doesn’t say a word to him, despite being prompted by her mom. So while Alex not confessing what happened to Keller could seem crazy, it’s in-line with how Prisoners shows other victims of abduction struggling to express themselves.
Who was the guy in the priest’s basement?
This is part of the maze-like construction of Prisoners. Some people may follow the clues and put 2 and 2 together. Others will be so invested in the first watching that this goes right over their head—which is intentional on the movie’s part.
When we first meet Holly, she tells Loki that her husband has been gone for 5 years. Doesn’t know what happened to him.
When Loki finds the body in the priest’s basement, the priest/father explains the man came to confess and spoke proudly about killing 16 children. So the priest left the man tied up to die. The body is beyond recognition, but there is a necklace of a maze.
We then have Bob Taylor being obsessed with mazes and the FBI agent’s book detailing how the child abductor dubbed the Invisible Man had used mazes. We know Bob Taylor was abducted by Holly Jones and her husband.
In Joy’s flashback there’s a note saying to complete all the mazes in the book. Alex Jones also refers to a maze.
Finally, when Loki’s at Holly’s house, suspicious because he thinks Keller might be there and might have done something awful, he sees the picture in the bedroom. It’s Holly’s husband, and he’s wearing the same maze necklace as the mysterious body from the basement.
No one ever says out loud, “THAT WAS HER HUSBAND!” They could have. There are a ton of changes that could be made to make this subplot more efficient and straightforward. But it’s done in this subtly disorienting way to make you have a sense of, “Wait…who was that guy…” and then hopefully figure it out and have an ah-ha! moment.
Does Loki discover Keller in the hole or not?
The screenwriter, Aaron Guzikowski, did an interview with Buzzfeed and just straight up said:
“Oddly enough, that’s how it was in the script when it was bought. And it never really changed. When we were shooting, we did shoot a version where it goes a little beyond where the fade out is. There’s a version where he moves the car and sees Hugh down there, and so on. None of us really wanted to do that version, but we wanted to make sure we had it in case once the film was put together it seemed like it really needed it. But after testing the film with the ending it has now, everyone decided that was definitely the way to go. Joel Cox, the editor, felt very strongly about it. I just think that’s the moment when the movie is ready to end.
“They move the car. They see he’s down there. You know he’s going to be taken out of the hole. I like it much better being ambiguous. Even though you assume that’s what’s probably going to happen, I like that there’s a small chance that he’s not going to get him out of there for whatever reason.”Buzzfeed
Keep in mind, the final scene was foreshadowed earlier in Prisoners. When Loki’s at the priest’s house, he sees the mark on the floor where the refrigerator gets moved in order to access the secret door to the hidden basement. His initial response is to dismiss it. But his instinct, thoroughness, and curiosity get the better of him. So he moves the fridge and finds the body.
Replace the fridge with the old car. And the hidden basement with the hole in the ground. And the long-dead Mr. Jones with the still-alive Keller Dover. That kind of foreshadowing is done for a reason. The implication being that Loki will be as thorough as before and discover Keller.
The themes of Prisoners
Real quick recap. Themes are developed through motifs. Motifs are repeating elements in a movie, which can be anything, from physical objects, to dialogue, to shots, to music, to concepts. A theme in the Star Wars universe is that good is associated with light and bad is associated with darkness. That theme reinforces itself through motifs such as Darth Vader’s black armor, his black cape, and often being shadowed (not to mention the heavy, marching music that feels very imperial and domineering). Compare that to Luke, when Luke finally becomes a Jedi, wearing a white outfit (and having more hopeful and exciting music).
Or in the movie Black Swan, a theme is duality, so we often see the main character, Nina, reflected in mirrors or windows. Or in the movie Us, we have subterranean beings created by the government. One of these underground people tells a shocked family, “We’re Americans.” After that information, the title, Us, can be read as US, or U.S., or United States. These repeating elements, and a few others, add up. To the point where it becomes undeniable that one theme of Us is the cultural state of America.
The main motifs in Prisoners are:
-Prisons (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual)
We’ve talked a lot about prisons already, so this might be repetitious to you. If you skipped right to his section, welcome! The notion of a “prison” recurs so often. Let’s go through the various types that show up.
Physical imprisonment: Holly keeping the two girls (then Keller) captive. Keller having Alex captive. The priest trapping Mr. Jones in the basement to die. And Loki literally arresting people with the intent of sending them to prison.
Emotional imprisonment: the disappearance of Anna and Joy emotionally devastates the Dover and Birch families. Grace, Anna’s mother, goes from sad denial of reality to drugging herself into oblivion. Franklin, Joy’s dad, objects to Keller’s treatment of Alex, but participates for a time because he feels he has no other option if he wants to get his daughter back. There’s an extreme cognitive dissonance that Franklin struggles with.
Psychological imprisonment: Alex and Bob Taylor both suffer from the trauma of their kidnapping. The kidnapping stunted both young men. And there’s a contrast to how their trauma expresses itself. By that, I mean Alex has headed towards introversion. Barely talking. Barely existing. We (and Keller) struggle to understand what’s going through Alex’s mind. Compare that to Bob. Bob’s almost completely externalized his pain. He draws mazes on walls. Imitates kidnapping children. Everything is action, action, action. Yet he’s equally difficult to understand.
Spiritual imprisonment: Holly and her husband found it impossible to move beyond their belief God had wronged them. Because of that, they’ve tortured other families to cause a similar crisis of faith and turn more people against God. How fitting we have a character named Grace, a word typically associated with God’s favor. It’s Grace who, in the wake of her daughter being stolen, completely falls apart. Her character is the embodiment of the spiritual crisis the Joneses hope to enact.
Before we talk about mazes, let’s talk about in-roads.
An in-road is a purposeful element that the writer/director includes to clue the viewer in on thematic subtext or plot mysteries.
In-roads aren’t always necessary, as many artists will use more obvious devices. Like in Nocturnal Animals we have three stories being told. There’s Amy Adams’s character going about her life in the present day. There’s the world within a book she’s reading that was written by her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal, funny enough). And lastly, we get flashbacks to her time with Gyllenhaal that reading the book triggers. Nocturnal Animals, through cross-cutting, makes it clear there’s a connection between what happens in the book and what happened in the relationship with Gyllenhaal. That the book is a dramatic retelling of Adams cheating on then dumping Gyllenhaal and the pain he dealt with in the aftermath of her hurting him. No story in-roads are necessary because the editing/plot sequencing makes obvious the parallels between the book and the relationship.
Now if Nocturnal Animals didn’t have flashbacks, if we only saw Adams read this book and get emotional but otherwise live her life normally…that wouldn’t work. The book would lack meaning because it lacked any and all context. You’d have to add some sort of in-road, like a conversation she has at a party where she mentions she used to date someone who wanted to be a writer but she broke his heart. That line would be an in-road that provides the necessary context to understanding why the book has such a devastating impact on her.
When you get to the end of a movie like Inception, there’s no explanation about what happened. We’re purposefully left to figure it out on our own. We do that by identifying in-roads, understanding their implications, then arriving at a conclusion.
Prisoners, like Inception, ends on a cliffhanger. Will Loki put 2+2 together and save Keller? Or will Keller die in the hole Holly Jones had left him in?
Okay, back to mazes.
Midway through Prisoners we’re introduced to the concept of the maze. Bob Taylor’s house has mazes drawn on the walls. When he’s in police custody, the police demand to know where the abducted girls are and Taylor spends 3 hours drawing a maze to show them. The dead body discovered in the priest’s house just so happens to have on a maze necklace. There’s an FBI book about a serial abductor who was obsessed with mazes. And the imprisoned Alex Jones eventually tells his captor that the girls are, “In the maze.”
On the surface, all of that just plays into the drama and mystery of a crime thriller. We expect psychos to have weird obsessions like mazes. And just basic everyday human psychology-wise, mazes are kind of magnetic, one of these archetypes that have been part of myths and legends and interest for centuries and throughout cultures.
But then you look at the structure of Prisoners, how it tells its story, how it reveals information, there’s an understanding that the maze stuff wasn’t just to spice up the thrills (as some people have complained). It serves a meta-purpose to make us aware of how to watch/understand the movie. This technique is more common in “artsy” projects than it is mainstream ones.
A funny example is Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album, Damn. The final song on the album is called “Duckworth”. It tells the story about how Kendrick’s mentor, Top Dawg, robbed a fast food place that Kendrick’s dad worked at. Kendrick’s dad had always given Top Dawg extra biscuits on the house. So when TD robbed the place, he didn’t shoot Kendrick’s dad. Because of that, Kendrick’s life turned out 1,000% different than it would have had he grown up without a dad. That’s cool, that’s interesting.
But at the start of the song, there’s an intro that concludes with, “We gon’ put it in reverse.” Then near the end of the song, Kendrick raps, “Pay attention, that one decision, changed both of they lives/One curse at a time/Reverse the manifest and good karma…Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be serving life/While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” There’s a gunshot and the sound of audio reversing with lyrics from earlier tracks playing backwards. The album finishes with the very first line from the first song: “So I was takin’ a walk the other day…” It’s a line that begins a situation where Kendrick gets shot and killed.
There’s clearly an attempt to get us to think about listening to the album in reverse chronological order. Instead of tracks 1-14, listen 14-1. But so many people missed this concept that Kendrick actually released a special edition of the album that was reverse chronological order. That way people without a doubt understood the point was for the album to have a happy ending one way and a tragic ending the other way.
This kind of internal instructional clue is something that didn’t really exist until the 20th century and the rise of modernism and post-modernism. By the turn into the 21st century, storytellers got pretty good at blending traditional narrative techniques with some of the more oddball ones from the modernism/post-modernism movements. Almost a hundred years later, it can be pretty seamless.
So yes, the maze stuff in Prisoners is part of the basic plot. And yes, it also reinforces the theme of imprisonment, because a maze can be, after all, a prison and almost every character in Prisoners is working through some kind of maze (physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual). But it’s also a clue from the filmmaker to treat the movie as a maze.
As mentioned before, we have a character named Grace. And we have a character named Loki.
“Grace” originated, as a word, in France in the 1200s and soon after had a firm association with Christianity and the idea of virtue and receiving the favor of God. It’s a huge part of the religion—like…a cornerstone of Christian theology. So while Grace may seem like a simple name, it’s not.
Same with “Loki.” In Norse mythology, Loki’s a big deal. Popular depiction has Loki as a trickster. A god who complicates things for other gods. Norse mythology’s climax is Ragnarok, where gods fight giants and everyone dies. Loki is on team giant and kills the god Heimdall.
Christianity ties itself to notions of faith and God’s grace. Ephemeral, spiritual things that operate on a metaphysical level.
While Norse mythology roots in paganism and associates with the natural world. Germanic paganism/mythology (of which Norse is an offshoot) put great symbolic importance on trees and forests and stones. To the point where they said the center of the entire universe was a gigantic tree named Yggdrasil. Not to mention how tattoos relate to paganism and Norse culture.
Villeneueve even discussed trees in an interview with Indiewire.
“They’re kind of like ghost characters,” director Denis Villeneuve said of the recurring motif of trees in the film; as we said earlier, like silent witnesses to the various violent crimes in the movie. “They’re always there, at least in the background. Each scene you can feel their presence. And they are linked with this idea of necessary violence.”Indiewire – 2013
Keeping the source of these character names in mind, if you re-watch Prisoners you definitely pick up on some thematic subtext involving religion.
Regarding Christianity, we hear the Lord’s Prayer. We see many crosses. Characters pray. They invoke God’s name. Keller keeps Alex in a box that’s similar to a confessional box. That whole torture subplot is like a twisted form of repentance. The idea of faith comes up again and again. Faith in God, faith in the police, faith in yourself.
When I say “faith in the police,” keep in mind that Loki is the detective. This means the Dovers and Birches have to place their faith in…a character named after a Norse God. A character whose first scene is talking about Zodiac signs. A character who wears a Masonic ring. Has astrological symbols tattooed on his hands. And on his neck, a star that probably represents some other non-Christian religion.
So we have two very Christian characters in Keller and Grace who are dependent on Loki, a character symbolizing non-Christian religions. Then the cinematography. It’s full of images relating to Christian iconography and references. But also pagan and other spiritual iconography and references.
What’s it mean that Keller prays to God to save him from the hole and it’s Loki who’s there? Does Loki represent a spirituality beyond Christianity? Or the sum of other religions being in service to the Christian God? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer. It’s an unsolvable puzzle. A maze without an exit.
But the important thing is that once you’re aware of this motif, you can re-watch the movie and appreciate what it adds to the overall experience of Prisoners and the meaning you derive from it.
A quick discussion about names
The two kidnapped girls. One has the last name Dover. The other Birch.
“Birch” is a type of tree.
In Latin, “Dubris” meant waters. And “was the name given by the Romans to Dover, England,” according to DoverHistorian.com.
(But is also “comes from the old Scandinavian meaning a ravine, gap, gorge, or a crevasse between cliffs.” The French, Celtics, and Gauls all had similar versions of the word (Douvres, Dubrās, and Dubris, respectively) and all meant “water” as well. Funny enough, Dover Historian mentions in Turkey the word means “to beat or hit a person.” Keller Dover definitely did a lot of dovering in Prisoners.)
We’ve already discussed the importance of trees in pagan religions. In Christianity, water is a major theme, playing a vital role in baptism and the idea of purity. So right there in the last names of the two main families, we see more religious references.
Tormenting those families we have Holly Jones. Jones, as a last name, means “son of John.” And John, as a name, means “God is gracious.” The irony here is that Holly’s child died. And that ignited in her a hatred of God. She feels God is anything but gracious.
Loki doesn’t have a first name, but we know the meaning of his last name.
We’ve talked about Grace’s name. But do you know what Keller’s name means? It’s a German version of “cellar.” Meaning basement, store room. You know, a room that’s underground. What a coincidence that the character with that name ends the movie in a hole in the ground?! But, at this point, you know better than to think it’s coincidence, right? Hopefully you’re thinking, “That’s an in-road!”
If that is what you’re thinking, high-five! Because that’s exactly what these names are. In-roads. When you realize one of the names has a deeper meaning, it leads to the question: “Do the rest of the names have meaning?” This brings us back to Grace and Loki and Dover and Birch, etc. You have another piece of the puzzle with which to unlock the deeper thematic intentions and questions of Prisoners.
The main theme of Prisoners
With the motifs in mind, we can finally get to what I think is the most interesting thing about Prisoners. The story is great. The characters are great. The filmmaking is great. But how the movie explores religion and puts Christianity in conversation with other religions/spiritualities is pretty incredible. Similar to how Fight Club is powerful because it’s not really about Edward Norton’s character but rather a deconstruction of individuality in a consumer-driven culture.
Prisoners is about spirituality and the complicated nature we have with spirituality. How do we make sense of the bad that happens in the world? How do we have faith in the face of bad events? And how do we make sense of the miracles in our lives? Are they divine or circumstantial?
The big issue every character has is with acceptance. Accepting not just the bad but the good as well. Holly and her husband could have found comfort in one another—instead their crusade ends up resulting in both of their deaths. Bob Taylor survived his abduction but can’t move beyond the trauma of it. Grace completely falls apart in the wake of Anna’s disappearance, to the point of being non-functioning. People can’t accept freedom, they can’t accept loss.
It’s really just Loki and Keller who keep their faith. Dover in his belief Alex Jones knows where the girls are. And Loki in his own inclinations and deductions. They accept what their instincts tell them and both end up playing the hero. Keller’s faith in preparation creates a chain of events that causes his daughter to leave a whistle in the hole in Holly’s yard. It’s that whistle he uses to signal Loki. While Loki’s faith in following signs guides him right to the imprisoned Keller.
The fact that our two most faithful characters end the movie together, each trusting in their faith, is pretty beautiful. They’ll each find salvation because of it. Though, as the movies ends before Loki saves Keller, that sense of catharsis is something Prisoners denies us. Which is, all in all, pretty fitting. By not showing Keller’s rescue, we’re left with a choice: do we have faith in Loki or don’t we? What ending do we choose? What fate for Keller do we accept?
By leaving that choice in our hands, the film becomes a moment of reflection, of confrontation. It asks you what you believe in.
There you have it. I hope this was helpful. I think if you re-watch Prisoners after reading this, then the movie is going to feel way more obvious in what it’s doing and why. If you have more questions, check out the rest of our movie guide for Prisoners.