Denis Villeneuve's gut-wrenching and captivating suspense thriller is not just a movie to entertain a theatre. It's a test deciding the significance of persistence, resilience, and sacred morality in life. Villeneuve's first attempt at an English-language feature forces its characters to go deep down into themselves and question what it takes for them to denounce their morals and values.
The 2013 release gathers its base from detective thrillers like Se7en, Zodiac, The Silence of the Lambs, and the TV miniseries True Detective. Still, it gradually unfolds to be much bigger and more effective than most of the films of the genre. Detective thriller films were earlier filmed as a noir-gangster cinema with a law enforcement official solving a murder mystery based on gathered clues and his/her ability to decode them. Added elements of mystery, such as unsolvable puzzles, made the film more gripping and suspenseful.
However, Villeneuve takes a step further with Prisoners. The comparisons mentioned above focus on a hardcore detective-killer chase and on the crime-solving abilities of the cops (while they overcome the horrors they induce during their investigations). On the other hand, Prisoners puts the protagonist (in this case, the victim and not the cop) in the mainframe while dealing with the mental instability caused by the trauma he has experienced. What feels like a kidnapping story turns out to be a very detailed and in-depth study of individual spirituality and morality. A series of revelations where the protagonist struggles to differentiate between the evil and the good. Every character battles their instincts and guts, repeatedly failing to reach a conclusion, eventually becoming "prisoners" to themselves and each other.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a religious and disciplined carpenter residing with his family, which includes his wife Grace (Maria Bello), son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). On Thanksgiving, the Dovers are invited to their friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch's (Terrence Howard & Viola Davis) home.
When their daughters Anna and Joy go missing the very same day, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned on the case. A mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is brought into custody as a suspect but is released on lack of evidence. Convinced that Alex is responsible, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands and abduct Alex to force the truth out of him. As Keller moves to torture Alex in desperation, Loki fights within himself to solve the case as he runs out of leads and suspects.
Prisoners has been constructed very thoroughly, with bits and pieces falling right into place to unravel the real truth, making the 153 minutes' run-time pretty seamless. It gives an ambiguous but satisfying closure to its characters' arcs and keeps the viewers engaged through every frame and dimension.
The ending of Prisoners is the subject of quite a lengthy debate on the internet, filled with the opinions of theorists and film enthusiasts, mostly focusing on the last mysterious thirty-seconds; however, the ending doesn't start there.
When the police find Joy, she tells Keller that she heard him when she was kept imprisoned. Keller immediately realizes that Holly Jones (Melissa Leo, in another stellar performance) has his daughter Anna in captivity. As soon as Keller realizes, he runs off to Holly Jones's house. On the other hand, Detective Loki runs to Keller's old house, where he's keeping Alex as a prisoner.
When confronting Holly, she holds Keller at gunpoint and asks him to get into a pit where she'd kept his daughter earlier. She shoots him in the leg, and he crawls into the pit, where he finds his daughter's red whistle he gave her as a tool to cry for help.
It is revealed that Holly was a devout Christian until her son died of cancer. She then, along with her husband, started kidnapping kids as a "war against Gods". She believed taking innocent kids would turn parents against faith in God, making Him vulnerable.
This part of the ending focuses on the death of Keller's faith in God and an instant renewal. Holly and her husband turned to Nihilism (rejection of all religious values) and decided to convert others like themselves who were suffering due to their children's loss.
Keller, throughout the film, loses his faith in God as he tortures Alex for information. He denounces all belief and his faith by giving up his moral values. A man who doesn't even enter someone's house unless he's invited suddenly becomes this emotionless torturer of a young soul. But, at the moment in the pit, he finds his daughter's whistle (which he later uses as a cry for help), which apparently restores his faith in his morals as that whistle is the light of hope (symbolized by a flash of torch on his face) bestowed upon him by the almighty.
Loki is the most practical personality of all the characters in the movie. He has been brought up in an orphanage, has seen his fair share of struggle, and seems agnostic. He has religious tattoos all-over, but his belief in religion is overpowered by his belief in evidence, practicality, and analysis of the events, just what a cop should be like.
Loki is troubled by a maze, which he believes is the path to Anna and Joy. The maze symbolizes Loki's troubles in solving the case. Every move he makes results in failure and does not help him reach a valid lead or hint to the girls. He's himself trapped in a maze, chasing down the three suspects and getting nothing out of them.
In this scene, after finding Alex, he goes to inform Holly of his abduction by Keller. He sees the maze locket in a picture of her husband, realizing that it was her and her husband who abducted all those kids, finally completing the maze. He goes after Holly in the other room, where she finds her injecting some poison in Anna. He points a gun at her and asks her to raise her hands. Instead, she shoots at him, grazing his head with the bullet, while Loki shoots her dead in retaliation.
That's where he solves the maze. Not only does he solve the case, but he also brings justice to the other kids whom Holly tortured (including Alex, who is later revealed to be Barry Milland, another child she took 26 years ago). As a cop, his conscience is partly cleared, and he is out of the puzzle, but he still has to save Anna.
Villeneuve has his reasons to film an entire sequence where Loki drives rashly to the hospital to save Anna. This scene somehow completes the character arc of Loki. Throughout the film, Loki's belief has lain in his persistence and expertise as a cop, which has led him to solve every case he has been handed. But this particular case has not only shattered his belief system, but it has also haunted him. In the film, it is obvious that there is some internal anguish or anger Loki carries, but he never lets it take a toll on his work.
But Anna's case has put him on the edge of a breakdown, which he can't afford; it might make him unstable and lose sanity. So he puts everything he has into it, despite his injury, and rushes to the hospital. You can see the haste, the pain in his eyes as he mutters, "please don't die" with teary eyes to Anna in the car. Fortunately, Anna is saved, and so is Loki's conscience and his belief system.
By this time, it has been a few days since Anna was saved. Keller is missing (in reality, he's still trapped in the pit since Holly Jones put him there). The investigation into the other missing children is on. Loki supervises Holly's property's excavation, but the crew says that the ground is too frozen to finish the job. Loki lets the crew go and stands there in silence. Suddenly, he hears a whistle. Keller is alive and is blowing his daughter's red whistle for help. Loki hears it and shrugs it off, but as the whistle's sound amplifies, Loki realizes something is off, and then the camera cuts to black. The End.
Whether Keller is alive or not is left ambiguous. Throughout the film, Keller tortures an innocent kid, acting above God and faith. Will he survive? Has God really forgiven him for what he did? Does he deserve a second chance at his faith? Answering these questions reveal whether he survives or not. The entire film takes roots from Christianity, and hence, the climax depends on the same.
In my opinion, Holly Jones was the Devil, Satan acting against God. Keller was a devotee who was turned away from God by the Devil. Loki is God's Angel, who saved the innocent and destroys the evil. At this moment, the devotee is stranded, and God has put his angel right by his side. If he has really forgiven Keller, he will make his angel save him.
From the sequence, given Loki's reaction to the whistle, one can hope that Keller survives. But that was never the point of the film. As I said earlier, Prisoners matters to the viewers in many ways, preaching life lessons. And whether Keller survives or not isn't a concern. Yet, despite all that, I personally would like to believe that Loki does find him and saves him, giving the devout another chance at faith and morals.
Prisoners has been woven perfectly. Every scene has a deeper meaning, and the way Villeneuve connects the dots in his direction is beyond conventional filmmaking. He explores Christian faith through the characters and puts that faith to a stern test. He explores the battle between good and evil, chaos and peace, persistence, and moral degradation. And there are characters crossing paths to get to one ulterior motive. The ending itself is a reflection of these battles. Loki has won his battle with his sheer commitment to finish the evil. But was Keller's negligence towards his own values right, given the circumstances? Will he emerge as a winner with his restored faith (as he finds the whistle)? That's for an individual to decide.