Reading Between the Lines: ‘Prisoners’
By Kai Sacco | September 27, 2013
WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers. Do not read it unless you’ve seen the film.
Denis Villeneuve’s grim thriller of child abduction and obsession, “Prisoners,” is a paradoxical piece of fiction that finds strengths in its weaknesses and weaknesses in its strengths. This anomaly is reason for why I left the film with a cloud of ambivalence looming over my head, trying my hardest to grasp what it was exactly that made me feel so. In my review, I defined what propelled these two clashing narrative realms:
“The [‘Prisoners’] script works rather well when it’s mulling like ‘Zodiac’ (2007), but occasionally loses itself once it starts dipping into the biblical darkness of ‘Se7en’ (1995). Abundant are the religious undertones, such as mazes and snakes, but the story isn’t quite meditative enough, morally, for them to take on any larger significance.”
While conducting some research on the film’s ecclesiastical iconography, I discovered that they actually dictate how the story plays out. It’s true that the movie’s showy ambiguities act as such, but once you dig deeper, they reveal themselves to be an important factor, albeit esoteric.
In this subtextual analysis of the film, I focus on uncovering the symbolic significance of the maze and Detective Loki’s eight-pointed star tattoo.
"Pray for the best, prepare for the worst."
About an hour into “Prisoners,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki stumbles upon a rotting corpse in a basement wearing a circular maze necklace (which is the same maze that appears on the “Prisoners” poster inside of the letter “O” of the film’s title). It isn’t given any kind of real importance until much later on in the movie when we discover that the deceased man abducted children with his wife Holly (Melissa Leo) years ago and tasked them with completing a series of mazes (the last of which being impossible to solve) in exchange for their freedom. He copied this idea from a book titled, “Finding the Invisible Man,” which centers on a serial killer who forces his victims to also complete a series of mazes; but their significance within the context of the film comes not from the book but Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover character.
When Keller indirectly confronts Holly for her kidnapping of him and Franklin’s (Terrence Howard) daughters, she says, “Making children disappear is how we wage war with God. Makes people lose their faith. Breeds demons like you.” While she isn’t aware that Keller has been holding her man-boy “nephew” Alex (Paul Dano) captive and torturing him, her “breeds demons like you” speech refers to the seemingly limitless depths one will go to to ensure the safety and return of a loved one. 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 pulls a gun on him, forces him to drug himself and tosses him into a deep, dark hole hidden under an old car in her backyard.
In 2001, Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Music at Yale University, Craig M. Wright, wrote a book titled “The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music.” Of mazes, Wright says, “A tourist visiting the famous cathedral at Chartres [France] might be surprised to discover an enormous labyrinth embedded in the thirteenth-century floor. Why is it there? The mazes incorporated into church floors and illustrating religious books were symbolic of an epic journey through this sinful world to salvation. A savior figure typically led the way along this harrowing spiritual path.”
In short, 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.
- Life: Keller’s home is safe and complete.
- Death: Keller’s home is broken by the taking of his daughter.
- Rebirth: Keller becomes a monster due to the wrong done to his family and friends, and must be granted salvation in order to return to the world as a man.
The hole Keller is in is square, just like the starting point of the maze on the necklace and poster. But if a maze, as Wright pointed out, is a metaphorical structure used to lead one to their salvation, why did Keller enter it, not exit? A piece of that puzzle lies in the opening of my review:
“…Is an act of evil ‘just’ if it’s well-intentioned and seemingly paramount?”
What Keller does by kidnapping and torturing Alex, in an effort to get answers on his daughter’s whereabouts, is a grey area of right and wrong. It IS well-intentioned, and it IS seemingly paramount but it’s also villainous; which leaves his moral compass in a neutral state. This is the driving force behind his current imprisonment in the cold, damp ground, and the key to his liberation.
A couple of days after deadly justice is served to Holly, and Keller and Franklin’s daughters safely return home, Loki and a team of archaeologists excavate the backyard searching for the remains of other abducted children. Once the bitter weather becomes too unbearable, the team leaves for the night. Loki hangs around for a bit reflecting on the mad events of the last few days. The car where Keller lies beneath eerily sits in the background. Through the crisp, nighttime air, a faint whistle is heard. It continues on. Loki perks up and listens. We the audience know that it’s Keller blowing the whistle he found in the hole, but before we’re given the satisfaction of Loki tracing his pleads for some kind of rescue, the movie cuts to black and credits roll. Will he find Keller who is just mere feet away from him, or will Keller spend the rest of his days in that pit of judgment, alone and afraid? The ending is meant to be ambiguous on a surface level, but by peeling back a couple of layers, it’s made apparent that Keller will in fact be saved from his own damnation; and the eight-pointed star tattoo on Loki’s neck holds the answer.
"I’m gonna find your daughter."
Representative of baptism, the eight-pointed star tattoo on Loki’s neck is a symbol of regeneration (spiritual rebirth).
A common link to this is Noah’s saving of eight people in his ark.
Genesis 7:13, KJB: “In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark.”
Like Noah, Loki is faced with saving / repairing the lives of eight persons affected by the same event:
- Keller Dover (father of abducted girl, Anna)
- Grace Dover (mother of abducted girl, Anna)
- Anna Dover (abducted girl)
- Ralph Dover (son of Keller and Grace)
- Franklin Birch (father of abducted girl, Joy)
- Nancy Birch (mother of abducted girl, Joy)
- Joy Birch (abducted girl)
- Eliza Birch (eldest daughter of Franklin and Nancy)
The last bit of Wright’s maze talk says, “A savior figure typically led the way along this harrowing spiritual path.” This figure is Detective Loki; but since Keller isn’t on an ordinary road to salvation, neither is Loki in guiding him. Because Keller’s moral compass knows no balance, Loki becomes the force that will save, not guide him. It’s because of this that I confidently believe Keller will indeed be found by Loki in that hole of well-intentions he dug himself into. Loki needs his eighth person so his ark can set sail and Keller is that individual.