Prisoners: An Exercise is Subtlety

Subtlety: acuteness or penetration of mind; delicacy of discrimination.

Prisoners is an interesting film. Directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay written by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners is an almost perfect example of showing instead of telling which sets the film medium apart from other art forms. There is so little exposition in the film that one would be forgiven for claiming the film was “exposition free.” By showing instead of telling a film opens itself up varying degrees of implicit and explicit symbolism that can be found in the characters, the things they wear, the things they surround themselves with, and their actions. Prisoners is a film in which there is very little said about the characters themselves and more is shown or revealed about them as the film progresses. As a result we find ourselves watching a story not in which events happen for the sake of happening, but they happen as a natural progression of the events and reactions of the characters.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Hugh Jackman, left, and Paul Dano in a scene from "Prisoners." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Wilson Webb) ORG XMIT: NYET949

When the film opens with Keller Dover (played by Hugh Jackman) we find him hunting with his son, Ralph. Within the first few seconds of the film beginning the audience is already able to form a picture of the kind of person Keller is based on popular opinion and stereotypes. These initial opinions of Keller create a mold for audiences to work from as the story progresses and more information is revealed about him. The very next scene has Keller telling his son about the importance of being prepared to handle any situation. We learn that this bit of information has been passed on from Keller’s father, and in what can be assumed is a similar way that Keller is now passing it on to his son. This line about being prepared implies “boy scout” but it also implies that Keller might be a survivalist. This is later confirmed by Keller’s storeroom found in the Dover’s basement that is filled with things that may be typically found in a survivalist’s basement. Following this statement about being prepared, Keller turns the volume up on a sermon that is playing on the radio. Within five minutes Keller is painted as a religious, survivalist. All of this is done without him saying so or anyone saying anything about it. When Keller is put into the hole under the Trans Am at Holly Jone’s house it’s not surprising when he starts to pray for the safety of his daughter. It might be interesting to note that this is the only time we see him pray in the entire film. It’s also the only time when he is completely out of control of his situation. As much as Keller strives to be prepared for any situation, there was nothing he could do to be prepared to be a prisoner. Throughout the rest of the film this “be prepared” mentality pushes Keller to his moral limits as he refuses to sit idly by while the police continue what he considers to be an inadequate investigation. His survivalist mentality also provides a sort of verbal time stamp with each passing day that his daughter is missing as he notes how many days his daughter has been missing and how much longer she could survive without basic human needs like food and water. This is one of many expository elements in the film, but it never feels unnatural since its something a survivalist who takes matters into his own hands would probably say in a given situation.


Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki almost acts as a foil in many ways to Keller Dover. The first time Loki is seen on screen, he is sitting alone in a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving (compared to Keller being with family and friends). The implication obviously being that he has no family to be with on a day that is traditionally all about being with family. To contrast Keller’s obviously Christian leanings, Loki has a ring with the Freemason square and compass on it. He also has an eight pointed star shape tattoo on his neck which is safe to assume has some kind of religious symbolism. It could be a star of Ishtar, but the eight-pointed star has been adopted and altered by so many religious groups it becomes difficult to discern what the star means for Detective Loki. prisoners-6He also has tattoos on his fingers that look like astrological symbols.
At the same time his character is introduced, he also makes small talk with the waitress about the different Chinese zodiac signs and the traits of those different signs. All of this implies a religious ambiguity to Loki, or perhaps one who is searching. To further contrast Loki and Keller, Loki is significantly more reserved than Keller is. Keller’s immediate response to any situation is almost always a violent outb
rst, whether it is yelling or through physical manifestation. The only time Loki is seen having any visible emotion is when he bursts into anger and trashes his desk. This reserved trait hints at the silent, intelligent type of person that Loki seems to be.

One of the few noticeable moments in the film when a character has to say something about another character instead of showing is when Loki is explaining to Keller why Alex Jones could not have kidnapped the two missing girls. It’s the during the scene when Loki explains to Keller that Alex is going to be let go because there is no real evidence connecting him t the crime. Loki tells Keller that Alex couldn’t have kidnapped the girls because his IQ is so low. It’s a necessary line because it explains both to Keller and the audience why Alex acts so strangely, but even before the line, because of great acting from Paul Dano, we know that there is potentially something mentally wrong with Alex. He is quiet. He barely seems to comprehend the questions or context of the questions Loki asks him. When he tries to drive his RV away from the police he crashes it into a tree, perhaps out of panic and less an attempt to escape. When the police search the RV they find him hiding which is something a child might do when they’re afraid they did something wrong, not an adult who would typically try to run or fight his way out. His entire behavior is characteristic of someone who’s mental growth has stopped. Which makes sense at the end of the film. Another noticeable moment of exposition comes when Loki and the police are searching Bob Taylor’s home after taking him into custody. The police find a copy of a book titled Find the Invisible Man. The police officer explains to Loki that the book is about theoretically individual who may have abducted several kids. In the same scene it is revealed that the crime scene in Bob Taylor’s home follows a lot of the same aspects of the crimes in the Finding the Invisible Man book. This is again, another instance of necessary exposition. Explanations like these are always found in crime movies like these.


It is very difficult to convey thought on film, especially a detective who has to connect so many clues and aspects of a case. That is why at the end of a majority of these films the detective will explain how everything connects together, and this will sometimes include a montage of footage that shows the criminal doing his or her dastardly deeds. Prisoners sets itself apart by establishing things early in the film so that the audience can connect the dots at the end. By the time Loki is standing inside Holly Jones’ house, looking at the photograph of her husband, Prisoners has given the audience all of the information they need to follow Loki’s train of thought. When Loki see’s the maze pendent on Holly’s husband’s neck in the photograph, our minds immediately connect to the dead body found in the Priest’s basement without any jump cuts of that body. When Keller confronts Holly because he has figured out where his daughter is being held captive and she brings out the 2-liter of mysterious chemicals, out minds immediately thing of the book Finding the Invisible Man with the realization the book was less than theoretically. Bob Taylor suddenly because a sympathetic person because we understand his mental state in the same way we now understand Alex Jones’ mental state. All of the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The end of the maze is in sight. None of this would be possible if the film had not established its pattern of subtlety from the beginning. The way the character’s are introduced begs the question “Why did they do that?” throughout the film. It forces one to examine not just the clues of the mystery but the actions and characteristics of the characters. When Keller begins to pray for his daughters life at the end of the film, its to show that he has given up on relying on himself and because of his religious views he is now going to rely on God. When Loki shows up it is seen as an answer to his prayer. When Keller finds his daughter’s whistle, our ears start listening for that sound each and every time one of the police or Loki is around the Trans AM. In the final scene the film has prepared us mentally to experience how Loki sees and thinks, to hear the whistle through the noise and chaos of everything around it.



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