Film Review: Prisoners (2013)

In a small town in Pennsylvania, two families get together for Thanksgiving dinner. Things take a dark turn when each family takes notice of the disappearance of their youngest daughters. Panic begins to mount, and a full manhunt and investigation into the disappearance of the two girls comes underway. But as the police pursue multiple leads, Keller Dover, the father of one of the missing girls, decides to take matters into his own hands. 

Even before the plot really begins to flesh itself out, it’s apparent just how dreadful a film this is. The editing and cinematography evoke a remarkable amount of anxiety and tension while also remaining minimalistic. There’s a shot right around the start of the film that is just a pan-in on a tree trunk… and yet, it’s more unnerving than most horror films manage to be. Every shot in this film feels so… pessimistic, and it does wonders atmospherically. 

What separates Prisoners from other similar films is how well it balances its plot, its emotionality, and its themes. The plot unfolds with extreme patience and plenty of nuance; every detail is important, and every revelation in the unfolding of the mystery allows the audience to piece together just the right amount. By doing this, the writers effectively keep the film gripping through despite the slow pacing. 

The subtleties of many plot points gives adequate room for the film to be at its utmost tonal potency. Even on rewatches, I find myself completely captivated by the pure emotion that just drips off it. This is reflected most effectively in Hugh Jackman’s character, Keller Dover. 

A devout Christian, Dover faces moral and spiritual dilemmas as his actions directly answer the societally-prevalent question, “How far would you go for your family?” We watch as Dover’s parental desperation mounts, driving him to perform more and more rash and morally-questionable acts and essentially leading him to a crisis of faith. As an audience member, you have the utmost sympathy for this character, while also acknowledging the lines he’s crossing. It’s also a testament to how good Jackman is here — he rides the line between relatable and repulsive so profoundly. A line could certainly be drawn between the moral questionability present here and the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Working as something of a character foil to Dover is Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, police detective Loki. Though similarly persistent and very driven to solve the case and find the missing girls, Loki’s methods are essentially a direct mirror of Dover’s. While Dover relies on impulse and is willing to cross moral lines, Loki mostly works with careful logic and deduction. It’s because of this contrast that Prisoners often feels primarily like a two-pronged character study focused on how different people deal with desperate situations. 

Something else handled very tactfully are the themes and larger concepts presented. The writers do a phenomenal job of presenting plenty of interesting ideas that are explored substantially while never detracting or distracting from the surface story. Obviously, there’s a TON of religious subtext present here, from Dover’s aforementioned struggle with his faith to the true antagonist of the film being a personification of the Devil. The most plentiful symbolism in Prisoners is present in the title; nearly every character is an internal or external prisoner. Keller is a prisoner to his determination clouding his judgement, Loki is a prisoner to his obsession with the case, and multiple characters are quite literally kept prisoner. This also relates to the abundant maze-related symbolism. 

The ending… just… wow… chills. It’s so beautifully simplistic and yet there is SO MUCH beneath the surface. Without going into spoilers… it sees the major characteristics of both Dover and Loki summarized in a very nuanced and clever way, remains just ambiguous enough to give you chills, and challenges you as an audience member to really think about possible connotations of the choices made by the characters throughout the movie. 

Prisoners is one of the best films of the 21st century thus far, and one of the best detective thrillers ever made. The writing is compelling and the psychological profundity as a detective thriller is perhaps comparable only to 1995’s Se7en. This remains my favorite of Denis Villeneuve’s films and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Overall rating: 10/10

Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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