Prisoners - Film Analysis

Prisoners Film Analysis from MUST SEE FILMS on Vimeo.

Prisoners analysis


‘Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.’


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This recurring quote throughout the film sums up the theme of the whole story.

The films is about characters relationships with god (pray) and being tested by the worst possible events, At its very core the narrative explores the question, ‘how far are you willing to go for those you love’


Prisoners is an intense, graphic thriller that really asked the audience to enagage with the deep questions of the film as you go through the suspenseful journey.

It presents different reactiosn to this senario but make no clear cut answer to these difficult moral questions.

The subject matter evokes our core percpetion of humanity and its relationship with our Law system. Building from low levels of fear and uneasyness to incredible suspense and ultimately a climatcitic ending.

Priosners ranks itslef among other investiagtion thiller such as silence of the lambs, zodiac and seven.

This analysis will focus on the themes of faith and the testing of faith. Through these characters pasts they have all come to develop different levels of faith but all as a means to deal with the dramatic and tragic experinces in their lives, making priosners a very human and powerful film.


The Title ‘Prisoner’ is so appropraite here:- even though several charcaters are literally imprisoned during the film, all characters act and making decision as if in physcological prisoners of there own individual pasts and the horrible events of the film.


Keller –

Man of God. Looses his way. Ultimately finds repdemition.


To fully undestand other charcater in this film, we must first explore Keller, all other characters are wrapped around him and his drive to save his daughter.


Keller’s father was a prsion guard and committed suicied when Keller was a teenagers, Keller and his mother found the father at there home. No Note was left and no comment was made by the prsion service after 14 years of work. This for me is a possible point in Kellers life when faith may have become a big part of his life.


As a result of his tragic childhood experince Keller has grown up into a father who puts his family at the highest priotriy and through his prepartion to ensure their saftey at all times has became a man in need of control.

Keller’s faith in the film is outweighed by his need for control and this is one of the reasons that Kellers faith is tested because of his sense of respsonsibity when his daugther is taken.


Kellers faith is clear at the beginning as he is introduced through prayer, sacrifice, symbols of faith and states the fact he is a carpenter. These elements of faith are compounded with several shots that position Keller and his daughter close together to later emphasis the idea of being torn apart and speration for his character.


Father was a gurad, just after the ‘didn’t cry til left bit.


Once his daugther is taken the feeling of personal responsibility is a heavy realistaion which is seen through his wife and the toothbrush scene.





The dream sequence forshadow that he will find his daughter and whistle. The whistle is the physical key to saviour but the hole he stays in is his final test of his faith. During his stay in the hole he doesn’t realise that loki has saved his daughter and the last communication with the aunt states she will kill the girls. So at this point, Keller faces his darkest mental prison, total lack of control, being helpless for his daughters and facing his own death.


Despite committing some terrible actions in the film in the name of good for his daugther, My theory is that Keller reaches a place of redemption by the end of the film after finding the whistle, its enough hope and closness to his daughter to allow him to restore his faith and ultimately leading to his rescue.


The two elements that save Keller are the whistle and Loki.

The whistle exsits through Kellers obsession for control and prepation and Loki will be explored later but is connected to Keller in a lot of ways and in some ways is Gods answer to Kellers prayers. Making the point that Kellers redeption is rewarded by the presence of Loki.


There is even a moment of pure darkness when with Keller as if giving the character a private moment to really reconnect with his finial action of the film, being enagagin in prayer.


It’s a fitting parralel for Keller final action to be prayer which is answered with his resuce as this bookends our introduction to Keller as the first words of the film are Kellers prayer.




One of Kellers reasons for taking matters into his own hands is his feelings of frustation with the law system. The pace and procedures of the investigation seem like a watse of precious time to Keller and the dymanics between Loki and Keller mirror that of a Western, Loki is the sherrif and represents the law and Keller is the outlaw who has a problem with the estblishment. Not surprsing since this story was orgininal dicussed as a western and then modernised into what we have now.


Kellers frustating with Loki is compounded by the age difference bewteen the men. Keller looks down on Loki and views his youth as navivity and incompetaence. Giving Keller more of a reason to take control.


Turning point


This Radio scene beofre Keller takes Alex acts as inner monologue for Keller at his major turning point. This is the moment he completely looses faith, in God and in the Law system. Along with his heavy sense of responsibity and a push from his wife, almost serving as guilt. The words in the radio broadcast are meaningul.


On screen:


The radio dailogue are Kellers thoughts and something he isnt willing to accept and forces him to take action. He's a survivalist, a man who thinks he can handle anything.


Early in the film Anna and Joy are seen watching a white rat. Later in the film, when Keller decides to take matters into his own hands and leaves to find Alex, the scene cuts again to the rat at Birch household, but now it is black, foreshadowing Keller Dover's transition from holy man to sinner.

There are 3 owls also included in this bedroom:- in dreams the meaning of 3 owls is a symbol of wisdom, seriousness and thoughtfulness. Something vague becomes clear and that judgement is usually correct. Confiming again that Keller truly believes that he is right to take action in order to save his daugther.

In the scene where Keller Dover fights with his son in Anna's room. He pushes him, and the son knocks over Anna's doll house which falls apart. Beautiful parallelism to their home is metaphorically falling apart.



In our First trip to see Alex, the cross in car is swinging and turned to the side, this represents Kellers Faith being tested and in this moment beginning to fade. This contrasts with the opening scenes when Keller and his son kill the deer during the opening prayer and we see the cross fully present and reflecting Kellers then stronger faith.


Kellers father commits suicide in this house and was found by Keller and his mother, probably why he doesn’t go there anymore, why he is relecutant to change it, Its poetic that Keller has to return to the location that tested his faith as a child and shaped him as an adult, for his faith to be tested once more.


Through Keller’s act of anger and vengeance against the innocent Alex, he becomes a demon amongst men, the abductor of another’s child and a prisoner to his own obsession—and a prisoner he literally becomes when Holly forces him into the hole. If Loki rescues Keller he will most likey take him from his hole of imprisonment to a real prison for his actiosn towards Alex. It is also a fitting role reversal that after trapping Alex that Keller must become entrapped almost as karma for hs actions.

From what we’ve discussed it seems like Kellers intenions was to save his daugther but his journey was more a test of his own faith and its Loki that ulitmately rescues her.

However Kellers actions are not insignificant. Kellers action indirectly saves his daughters. Because he takes alex, the aunt feels lonely and brings the girls out of the hole, allowing joy to escape and leadin keller to the hole but misdirects loki to save alex leadin loki to notify the aunt and saving the daughter. Although this is a little long to explain, its very smart story plotting that tells us his actions even though morally equestionable are also the catalyst that sparks actiosn leading to the rescue of his daugther.





To fully understand each character, it is important to explore their pasts as each of them gives clues to the kind of person and beliefs that these character have in the film.


The aunt and her husband used to be people of God and hand out pamflets in the name of God, spreading the good word.


Their son got cancer and died, this was the major turning point and test of faith for this couple. They expected their investment in god through there lifes to pay off, they felt like they were owed a jesture of good will after all they had put in and have there son saved, but since this wasn’t the case they began to wage a war against god as revenge. They thought that others should experince the loss of a child and what it turns parents into.



Her and the husband creating new unbeleiveres. (alexs real mum) This exlains why the husband went to presit in first place, to gloat and rub their actions in the face of god. ‘he bragged about it.’


All characters are battling with a need to be set free, Like keller and alex who try to escape physical and metaphorical prisons, she doesn’t want her final resting place to be an inclosed coffin. This gives meaning to her final line, ‘sure as hell don’t wanna be stuck in no box.’




Loki’s character may be the most interesting and Jake Gylinhalls performance really evalated him to a more complex and human figure.

Loki’s past is less clear, we know he was raised in a boys home and it is specualted that he has engaged in some juvenile criminal actvivies during his childhood and hinted at abuse during his upbrining. Those events are bound to be an emotional burden of a dark past. Loki is now detective who is confined by the rules of the law. This makes for an interesting and complex clash of past life and proffesional judgement during dramatic scenes.

Gyllenhal stated in an interview: -I inferred that he'd probably been through the juvenile detention system and that, in order to be a really good cop, you have to understand the criminal mind and also be fascinated with it, and maybe have been [a criminal] at one point of another.

Loki is introduced to us alone and never with any mention of family, we approach Loki with a very specific shot of his back, this shot his repeated at 3 other key moments in the film, usually when Loki is getting closer in the case and something is right under his nose.


  1. intro dinner
  3. infornt of car early

Loki stands a few feet away from the girls who are under the car

  1. keyboard smash

Loki is still full of rage and is being tested and is about to stumble on an important clue


  1. whistle

Unlike the prvious back shots we begin to move away from him as if the case is over or he is mentally trying to let this story end and move on, but during this crucial moment we hear the whictle blow, leading to one of the most peferct endings of a suspenseful investigation film.


Pic of all 4 backs.


We know Loki has never failed to solve a case and I have complete faith in him as a detective to investigate even the slightest possiblity and this drive and thoroughness is what will ultimately save Keller. By saving Keller he not only has solved the case of the missing daugther but he will have tied up all the loose ends. You can see a lack of satisfaction when Loki meets the daugther in the hospital, you can tell his mind is still working on the case.


Loki has absolute faith in the law to lead him down the right path eventually, which is does, even if his sense of urgency doesn’t match that of Kellers.


Lets explore some of the details Loki character reveals: -


Tattoo: Loki has various tattoo’s on his body, all of which have a specific narrative purpose. The mere presence of so many tattoos as a detective makes him a questionable character, making his past a prominet part of his character.


Loki’s neck tattoo is an eight side pointed star, meaning the symbol of choas, In Christianity, the eight-pointed star is the Star of Redemption or Regeneration and represents baptism. This could be significant for the turn around in his own life or how he helps Kellers character throughout and espically at the end of the film.

Loki stragtically uses this tattoo for initmidation, espcially around Alex and during questioning, he covers it up when around the family.

Loki’s finger Tattoos are versions of zodiac symbols or star signs but don’t seem to match any I could find, however the Letter on the finger Roughly form the shape of M.A.Z.E. The word maze runs through the whole film .even the close ups on the wifes meds, temaze and bromazepene.

Mason ring- Means more in america than it does to me but Gyllenghal has stated in an interview that's sort of another representation of the institution, finding comfort within that space and what that means, particularly in America.

Twitch- Loki has a twitch and blinks repretitivley throughout the films, espically during investigation scenes. Jakes states in an interview:

And I found that to be a way in which it was like an expression of this emotional state; he just couldn't emote, because it would hurt the case. It could hurt him in trying to figure out the case, it could cause great doubt. So he was just dealing with computing so much that it was almost like an overload. It was like a glitch.

Loki and Keller

Cross on hand – The only other Cross we see in the film is the one that hangs in Kellers car and begins to becomes less clear as his faith fades. Loki’s is tested at several points in the film and never beaks the law, but is tempted to at different moments usually when pushed by Keller or made to feel guilty by Keller.

Both men have the same goal of finding the girls and share the belief of ‘prey for best n prep worst’ at least we agree on one things.

This phases is one of the main beleifs that’s Keller embodies and Lokie begins to become infleucned as the film goes on.

  1. Keller start (K)
  2. They agree on one thing(K+L)
  3. Loki uses the line at the end (L)

Lokis actions blur into a more grey area when confronted by Keller as he is beginings to become personally invested.


Loki’s Arc starts with

-just another case, objective, txting scene

-Kellers infleucne begins to get Loki emotionally invested

-Loki battles with this emotion of urgencey and is tempted to break the law at several points to make progress

-By the end of the film he is completely invested and allow he saves the girl the case for Loki isnt finished until he saves Keller, since it was Keller that inspired or forced or guilt tripped him into some of his actions. He needs to find Keller for closure.


Keller and Loki connected through God:-

The juxtapositon of events in the film are very improtant and the timing of characters actions and presence are used to support the narratives themes of the film.

whenever Keller prays to God for help, Loki appears soon after.

When Keller confesses to God after hurting Alex and asks for help, Loki appears. When Keller prays for his daughter, we move to Loki saving his daughter.

There are other moments, but Keller's prayers are always answered with Loki acting soon after.


The single eye

Another frequent visual in the film is that of the single eye. After being tortured by Keller, Alex has one eye that is bruised so much that it is permanently shut — in later scenes, he is filmed so that the light falls only on his one, open eye. And, during the climax, Gyllenhal’s character is shot just over his left eye, so that blood seeps into it, pops blood vessels, and veils his vision. In Christian mythology, there is limited symbolism of a single eye (at least that I know of). In Nordic mythology, however, the God Odin gives up one eye to the Three Fates in exchange for Wisdom. In Prisoners, Jones is the one character who, from start to finish, knows and is willing to divulge the location of the missing girls — similarly, Gyllenhal is blinded when he discovers a girl. Wisdom comes with its price.

Snakes are also a religious symbol used in different mythology, tempting during the adam and eve story, satan is reffered to as a snake and is also a promint figure in Norse mythology

Grey area:

Loki Tries to bend the rules, as he begins to identify with Keller character, he is asked to keep Alex in for another day and although he doesn’t commit to anything infornt of Keller he does try and presade his captain to follow the request.

Loki’s second grey action influenced by Keller is after the sock ID scene. keller blames loki, and he experinces a moment of reflection, emphasesed by his physical reflection in the glass door. Despite his best effort and calm demeiour this scene has a heavy effect on loki as it leads to a major turining point and makes his second action of grey because of keller pressure. Loki Hassles bob and

indirectly gets him killed and looses a ptoential witness. .

Also this scene is cross cut with kellers prays, maybe telling us that this was a moment where loki is asking for strngth in his faith.

A payer that keller cant finish, showing both men getting to the end of there wits

Also when asked if Keller will go to prison, his statement of ‘probably’ hints at level of sympthy and even doubt as to what should be a clear cut yes or no based on Kellers actions.

Keller and Loki cross during the film, Keller begins intensley and his faith is tested throughout, Loki starts as if any other case but begins to identify with Keller and becomes increasingly invested and during Kellers darkest hours and entrappment Loki takes over and completes the case they both set out to solve and rescue.

This crossover is mirored by their physical hieght in the film, in the beginning Keller looks down on Loki and refuses to sit whenever he is around him, During the middle of the film Keller becomes more vulnerable and relcutantly is lowered to Lokis level. and we see him below Loki and at the end of the film, Keller has sank so low in term of his faith that he is below ground level compared to Loki and it will be Loki’s job to raise him back up.

The choice of music again emphasises this redemption for Keller and how his time in the hole has been a spirtual journey or rebirth.

Music Choice

In the beginning of the film Keller journey home is overlapped with ‘put your hand in my hand’ a song that speaks about being in step with god and letting him guide you, very much a reflection of Keller character at that time.

The use of ‘hands in my hand’ is particualry meaningful as being in sync with god when contrasting it to the song choice near the end of the film.

As loki waits and Keller is most likey engaged in prayer we hear the radio head song, codex.

This song has a lot of parraelles with the Buddhist spiritual cycle of life, death, and rebirth. the song is about the cleansing rebirth in spiritual death, in that exploring the unfamiliar within ourselves and abandoning our previous shells.

A particularly meaningful line which adds meaning to our earlier example is :

Sleight of hand (Keller has done something wrong and covered it up.

after a traumatic event that seems to have scar-ed Kellers character, water usually symbolizes some form of cleansing and rebirth, paralleling baptism - hence "the water is clear and innocent". In that, by "jumping off the end into a clear lake", we shed our previous skin and the burdens of our soul brought about by our mistakes ("you've done nothing wrong"). "No one around" reminds us that this entire process is a personal, spiritual experience, and is wholesome within ourselves.

This song is very insratmental in conveying Keller redepmtion of faith, which will most likely be rewarded by Lokis arrival and ultimetley his rescue.



Alex Was the first child they took, perhaps why they kept him as a replacement for their son because they flet they were due.


They also might have kept him becausee of the accendt that is hinted to at the end of the film.


As we know the father kept snakes and alex was the first person they kidnapped. They potentially used snake venom in the drug cocktail they used. Perhaps they hadn't gotten the dosage right yet and overdosed him to the point of severe brain damage.



My darling husbands recipe.


Shes seems pretty confident in the dosage and amount necessary to take down Keller and must have leanred this throuhh repition and experiernce.




Using subsitles during this shower scene I was able to hear what Alex was really saying.


Shower scene: - ‘ I waited and he never came, im not alex, I just wanted to play and he never came’

Keller uses the water almost to pureify alex but with not luck in terms of information.

Feelling frustrated Keller prays to be pardoned for his sins, the scene almost reflects that of a comfessionary. This prayer is again answered by Lokis arrival.







The maze shown to us in the film represents the pilgrimage of life, death and rebirth Keller is unknowingly partaking in. Like all holy journeys, the destination is of moral and spiritual significance.

  1. Life: Keller’s home is safe and complete.
  2. Death: Keller’s home is broken by the taking of his daughter. Keller becomes a monster due to the wrong done to his family and friends.

3. Rebirth: He must begranted salvation in order to return to the world as a man.


Others family memebers.


Because the films shows these characters in extrodinary circumstances we see how different characters react to a test of this level and intensity.


Mother turns to drugs,

Keller turns to viloence

Fther 2 turns to non action



2nd father franklin: -


in the intense hammer scene he doesn’t contibute it but doesn’t stop it either, empahsising the helpless feeling, this feeling of duality is literally shown when he is stuck inbwteen the two. Watching that scene again and watching from his perpective completely chages your thoughts of the scene, his face is shocked as he is apulaued and helpless at the same time.


His actionless stillness says lots. The act of non action says a lot about his character. He battles the most between this morally questionable action and the need and desire to have his daugther back.



Bob: -


The maze maker is a prisoner of his severe abuse. Bob was one of the many unfortaunate characters to have been aducted as a child by the aunite and luckily esaped, but like the rest of the characters in the film he is haunted by his past.

He experiences a memory lapse and inner trauma that drives him crazy and Dealing with the pschological burden has led him to search and return to the mindset of people like his kidnapper to try and understand what happened to him.


The fact he stole from keller family wasn’t related to alex but just for athenticity of the situation for bob, the only connection for him in th story is he was taken by the the aunt and husband and the book he reads, the maze he draws and the necklase maze are al from the same book ‘finding invisble man: - at the end. Unsolveable maze.


Solve the maze and you can go free.


For him the gun is his esacpe from the unsolveable maze, its life that has caused him pain.





Camera work


The opening shot of the film is very much like the bars of a prison cell, matching the opening imargey with th theme of the film.

Early on in the film, the camera is used effectively to give the audience the feeling of someone watching, All in the effort to increase tension and an uneasy feeling of uncertainity and drama.

It was shows us a waiting camera, making the audience want to see more and aniticpate something coming.

The interiors of the houses seem gloomy and cramped, with walls cutting into the frame and characters coming in and out of sight: a visual correlative for the idea of people cut off from one another.

Looking through glass, ‘being close but sepearted from’ we constantly throughout the film see the action through glass and from a distance. This empahsises the idea of distance, distrust and seperation.

Repeated scene, getting close to infor: preist and keller, presit is a sex offender, again theme of religiona dn justice being at odds.

This film purposefuls leaves gaps in the narrative, usally by fading to black as something is about to happen, asking the audience to fill in parts for themselves and be an active participant. This is particiularly true for the ending moment of the film, leaving the audience with questions and encouraging reflection on the film. For me the characters have been shaped so well throughout the film that is is clear what will happen after the credits.


Prisoner was one of my favoruite films of last year, along with place beyond the pines. Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming one of my favoruite filmmakers and I was pleased that when I dug deeper into prisoners that it always revealed meaning and shows the level of detail that went into making such a suspensful thriller ride and human story.

  • 11/08/2014 17:34:06
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  • Film Analysis
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  • Darren Foley

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