After two and a half hours of extreme suspense and an open finale, you want to make a strong cup of coffee and once again scroll through the story in your head in search of answers to questions. “Prisoners” is the kind of film that is interesting to watch a second time, even knowing the outcome: details that were invisible on first viewing suddenly come to the surface. My analysis of the film “Prisoners” is for those who are not ready for a second viewing yet and just want to understand what happened at the end, where the mysterious labyrinth was, and whether there was any subtext in it all.
What a labyrinth is
A maze is not a place or a space but a confused state of mind into which Holly Jones plunges kidnapped children. A collection of maze-related puzzles Detective Loki finds among Bobby Taylor’s few personal belongings. The cover reads, “Solve all the puzzles, and you can go home.” With these riddles, the Jones spouses gain such control over the victims’ minds that the children can no longer return to their everyday lives.
Bobby Taylor manages to escape from the Jones house, but his mind is still wandering the maze. He paints the walls of his apartment in an endless maze, looking for a way out. When Detective Loki asks Taylor for the location of the children, he reproduces the mazes from the challenge book over and over again. Both Bobby and Alex Jones perceive the maze as a real place. Recall Alex telling Keller Dover, “They’re in the maze. You’ll find them there.”
The labyrinth is depicted on the medallion worn by Holly Jones’s husband. The plot of “Prisoners” itself is reminiscent of a maze. The two characters, who are trying to solve the mystery of the missing kids, roam the labyrinth and repeatedly hit a dead end. At the opening of the film, everyone believes that Alex Jones has kidnapped the children, but he turns out to be incapable of doing so – a dead end as well. The investigation leads to Bobby Taylor, but he only imitates the perpetrator’s actions – a dead end again. Keller Dover reveals Holly’s secret, but she disarms and traps him – deadlock. Only Detective Loki manages to find the final way out of the maze.
The meaning of the title
The original title of the film is “Prisoners.” In English, this word has no indicators of gender: you can understand it as both “girl prisoners” and “boy prisoners.” Unfortunately, some of the meaning was lost in translation: we had to shift the focus entirely to the kidnapped girls and leave out the other captives. Meanwhile, the other characters in the film are also imprisoned, and more than once:
- Alex Jones (aka Barry Milland) finds himself captured four times. The first time is when the Jones spouses steal him from his birth mother. Then when he is captured in a labyrinth from which his mind can no longer escape. The third time he is imprisoned is when he is caught by the police, led by Detective Loki. Finally, he is kept by Keller Dover. In the finale, Alex breaks free: he recalls (at least partially) his real identity and returns to his mother.
- Bobby Taylor can be called a prisoner three times: first, he is imprisoned by the Joneses, then by his own mind, and finally, he is under investigation. Bobby is the only character who never manages to get out of the maze.
- Keller Dover is caught twice. For the first time, he becomes a prisoner of his own idea when he decides that Alex Jones is responsible for his daughter’s disappearance. Then he becomes a prisoner in the real world, trapped by Holly Jones. In the finale, Keller is liberated from his inner captivity (more on that next). But physically, he remains a prisoner: he has to serve time for the kidnapping of Alex.
As you can see, the meaning of the title is much deeper than it appears at first glance. Prisoners are not just Anna and Joy, and captivity is not only real imprisonment but also a trap of the mind.
“Prisoners”: ending explained
To understand the meaning of the ending of “Prisoners,” one must first understand the image of the central character, Keller Dover. Although the audience’s sympathy is clearly not on his side, the plot of the movie is, in many ways, the story of Keller’s moral journey.
Notice how Keller’s image is framed from the very first shots. He is emphatically religious, and this is evident in many details: reading prayers, a wooden cross on the windshield, and a fish (a symbol of Christ) on the car’s trunk.
Over the course of the story, Keller changes his role three times. First, he is the victim, his daughter being kidnapped by a criminal. But soon, Keller himself becomes the kidnapper of the child. It is no coincidence that the characters in the film are constantly repeating that Alex Jones has the IQ of a 10-year-old. On the other hand, Keller demands that he answer as an adult. Keller’s behavior puts him on a par with Holly Jones. Keller’s further story is a plunge deeper and deeper into darkness. He implicates his friends in the crime, lies to Detective Loki, and finally arrives at Holly’s house, intending to torture her as well. But Holly is prepared for his visit, and Keller is victimized again.
Keller’s imprisonment is very symbolic. We learn that he spent three days underground before Detective Loki heard his whistle, and that’s how long it took before Jesus rose from the dead. Also, Keller’s confinement underground refers back to ancient initiation rites into occult communities: neophytes immersed for long periods of time in total darkness to experience spiritual death and purification. This is exactly what happens to Keller, who spends three days alone with his guilt and anxiety about his daughter’s fate.
The moment of Keller’s redemption is supposed to symbolize his rebirth. But it is this moment that is left out of the picture. In my opinion, it is an indication that the former Keller Dover no longer exists. We know further developments from the dialogue between Detective Loki and Grace Dover. Keller will go to prison.
Thus, the finale of “Prisoners” shows the spiritual death of Keller Dover but gives hope that the captive has repented of his wrongdoing after all. The conclusion also refers to the film’s title: Keller is taken to prison and becomes a jailer.
The subject of good and bad
Among all the characters in the picture, there are almost no unconditionally “good” or “bad.” The only person who has virtually nothing to blame him for is Detective Loki. The only personages who do not arouse any sympathy are the Jones couple.
The Joneses are presented as the ultimate evil. In all the other
characters, evil appears only as a reaction to the Joneses’ inhumanity. Keller Dover is the next victim of the Joneses, who “wages war with God.” As unpleasant as this character is, it seems to me that he cannot be perceived only as rude and aggressive. We are given to understand that Keller was mentally unstable even before his daughter went missing. When he was a teenager, he experienced the death of his father. This could not but leave an imprint on Keller’s mental state. His religiosity borders on obsession; he raves about pictures of the end of the world and takes refuge in the basement of his house. Keller is ready to “turn into a demon,” from the beginning, he is the perfect victim for Holly Jones.
The Birch family unwittingly becomes complicit in Keller’s crime. In my opinion, their guilt is heavier than Keller’s and the priest’s because they fundamentally avoid making any decision, whether to surrender Keller to the police or to join him. They are incapable of taking responsibility for that choice, but that does not make them any more highly moral than Keller. They are aware of the evil he has done to Alex, but they choose to remain silent. Their silence encourages Keller’s actions.
Although Keller is convinced of Alex’s guilt, he still hesitates. This is evident in the scene when Keller recites a prayer before going to his old house. He stammers after the words “And forgive us our trespasses…” as they are followed by “..as we forgive them as trespasses against us.” This is exactly what Keller fails to do – forgive.
Other essential words Keller says to Benjamin Birch: “He is no longer a man, and he stopped being one when he stole our daughters. Keller tries every way to dehumanize Alex: he covers his face with a bag and locks him in a dark room from which he can hardly be seen. All of these tricks actually help Keller to abstract himself from the fact that Alex is human after all.
If you have time, you can listen to a lecture by the famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He talks about how most ordinary people can commit all kinds of atrocities if you dehumanize their enemy. This lecture may help you better understand Keller Dover’s train of thought.