The film is set in the Pennsylvania suburbs and features picturesque, nearly empty streets and alleyways lined with birch trees.
It focuses on two families whose lives are (at least initially) characterized by a sort of pre-world insulation against the perils of the world-at-large. Kelly Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minette) are shown on a deer-hunting trip in the opening shot of Prisoners, establishing immediately that Dover is either the predator or the prey in this particular hunt.
Dover, a carpenter by trade, is seen preparing for the end of the world by stocking his basement with food and water. Dover is a survivalist and a religious believer who is constantly making preparations for the worst in order to keep his family safe.
This family consists of his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), their son, Ralph, and their daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), who is six years old. When Anna and Jenny, age 7, disappeared while searching for Anna’s red whistle across the street, the plot thickens into a Chekov’s Gun that comes back to haunt Dover in the film’s final moments.
In an early, noir-tinged shot, we meet Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he eats alone at a Chinese restaurant as the rain beats down on the windows.
The aura of bleak ennui is heightened when Loki detains a possible suspect in the kidnapping case, Alex (Paul Dano), a socially inept, mentally challenged man, and the owner of the RV, outside which, the girls were last seen. Dover and Loki go in opposite directions in their search for the missing girls, and the plot begins to unravel in a visceral way as a result of the high stakes.
While Loki’s relentless determination hinges upon following the trail of tangible evidence, Dover acts purely out of fatherly instinct, with a sense of conviction and retribution that feels justified and morally conflicting at the same time.
What Happens Finally, Does Loki Save Dover?
During the climactic final moments of the film, Dover is drugged, wounded, and imprisoned in an underground pit by Holly, which is hidden by a car in her driveway.
While the audience is treated to the heart-thumping confrontation between Loki and Holly, in which the detective manages to shoot the child-killer and save Anna, Dover’s fate seems uncertain, trapped as he is, in a literal prison, left only with his daughter’s red whistle, a symbolic culmination of his anguished psyche.
However, despite saving the day, Loki returns to the crime scene, even after the forensics team leaves empty-handed – a reaffirmation of his hamartia, a mind that lingers on unanswered questions, on tentative loose ends.
While Loki stands near the driveway, unbeknownst to Dover’s presence in the pit, the last 30-seconds of the masterfully-taut film finally implodes with frantic anxiety.
Right then, Chekov’s Gun, or Anna’s red whistle, goes off – first, a faint, cry-for-help, which Loki initially brushes off – then transforming into a steady, yet frenzied rhythm. As realization dawns on Loki’s face, the camera cuts off.
Villeneuve’s decision to cut the film off just before this point demonstrates once again his mastery of the art of cinematic storytelling.
The film’s final scenes are a culmination of Loki’s obsessive determination and Dover’s survivalist fortitude, which are on display throughout Prisoners. Loki, the detective, has heard the whistle blow, and he will undoubtedly come to Dover’s aid from the pit.
The whistle becomes a fleeting glimmer of hope, but it won’t last long because Dover is almost certainly going to prison for his crimes against Alex (one of the many ironic metaphors in the film is that Dover’s father was a prison guard).
Villeneuve ends the suspenseful sequence at the perfect time, avoiding a cliched denouement that leaves viewers wondering what happens to Dover long after the film has ended.
Now that his loved ones are safe, Dover’s future is uncertain, but as a broken man plagued by sin and repentance, he cannot afford to waste time with them. With that final shot, Villeneuve and Guzikowski achieve their goal of making viewers feel uneasy and curious about the film’s grisly subject matter.
In this way, the story takes on a life of its own, evolving in our heads and taking off down different avenues to form its own maze.
An expertly paced and crafted crime drama, Prisoners is haunted by Roger Deakins’s fantastic cinematography of landscapes bleeding with nihilistic bleakness.
The ending of Prisoners is what elevates it above the level of a merely competent thriller; it doesn’t rely on a lot of exposition or dialogue to make its point; instead, as is often the case in art and in life, the metaphors speak for themselves.