This year’s Oscar race has certainly been an interesting one, especially on the spiritual front. The nominees have shown incredible depth and range as far as spiritual themes go, and Prisoners is no exception. The film, now available on DVD, showcases the transformative effects on a man of one tragic event, as we watch Hugh Jackman’s character abandon his morals in pursuit of the people who took his daughter.
“We do it to wage war against God,” one of the kidnappers tells Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, when pressed for their motive, “because losing a child turns good men like you into demons.”
By their own definition, then, it would appear that by the end of the film, the kidnappers win — Dover has been through all kinds of hell (some of which he imposed on himself) as he hunted for his missing daughter. He has allowed irrationality, violence and vengeance to get the better of him and transform him into something that he is not. When we last see Keller Dover in the film, he is not only a demon, but a beaten one, face to face with his enemy and still in pursuit of the goal that led him there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Prisoners, which has an Oscar nomination for Cinematography, presents the story of Keller Dover and his descent into madness as he searches for answers in the troubling case of his daughter’s disappearance. We first meet Dover in the opening frames of the film, where we hear him praying an Our Father over a deer about to be shot by his son on a hunting trip. He is quickly established as a good and moral man, an upright father who loves his family more than anything in the world. As a character, he is the clear everyman protagonist and wholly relatable. Yet, when his daughter Anna and her friend Joy vanish one Thanksgiving, the audience begins to see an entirely different side to Dover.
He begins to lash out at those around him, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, the police officer assigned to the case. When Loki fails to produce leads that are sufficient, Dover takes matters into his own hands and branches off from the investigation to search for Anna alone. After several confrontations with Alex Jones, the man whom he believes took the girls, Dover kidnaps Jones in the hope of making him give up whatever information he has about the girls’ location. This is where Dover begins to lose sight of himself.
As Jones proves to be more and more cryptic and unhelpful in the matter, Dover pushes him harder and harder, conducting a series of tortures on the man in an attempt to get what he is after. As Jones gets ever more bloodied, bruised and beaten and still remains silent about Anna, we begin to wonder — has Keller Dover inflicted these horrors upon an innocent man? Furthermore, even if he is not innocent, does he deserve the physical and psychological torment that Dover has put him through during his capture, assault, and interrogation?
The real crux of Prisoners is Dover’s journey and the way that the film illustrates the loss of control over his life. With every passing day that his daughter is not found, the fear that she may never return only constricts Dover more, and forces him toward more and more ruthless behavior. Alex Jones is not the only prisoner here, for just as he is the tortured captive of Keller Dover, so too is Dover imprisoned by his own rage and fear and ensnared by the acts of the kidnappers who have taken his daughter. In this sense, as I said earlier, the kidnappers win their “war against God,” as they push Dover ever closer to insanity by dangling the solution to his problem just outside his reach.
However, the so-called “victory” in the war against God is only on the kidnappers’ terms — overall, in spite of their efforts, they lose the fight. I won’t spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it (if you do choose to watch it, be mindful that it contains some rather disturbing content, though a great movie nonetheless), but in the end, Dover comes to a somewhat redemptive place. He atones for his transgressions against Jones, and in service of his ultimate goal of saving Anna, he endures a fitting penance for what he has done. One way or another (depending on your interpretation of the conclusion of the film), Dover pays for what he has done, and as such he overcomes the “demon” that he had become.