Was Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ Actually an Indictment of God as The Root of All Evil?

The primary conflict that arises when one hinges his entire existence upon God – or any faith-based ideology, for that matter – is that God accepts the blessing, while man assumes the blame. I mean, there’s more, of course, including an ongoing lack of accountability and stiff reluctance to rely on foolproof science. But in the end it all circles back to unrequitement, and unrequitement’s stern ability to breed contempt.

This is the dynamic Canadian director Denis Villeneuve chose to explore during his 2013 drama, Prisoners … a movie throughout which God – and by extension, organized religion – keeps clawing at the surface. During the first three minutes alone, viewers are confronted with one crucifix, talk of the Rapture, the Gene MacLellan classic “Put Your Hand In The Hand (Of the Man from Galilee)“, and, most importantly, the “Our Father” (offered as a ritual prior to the killing of an innocent).

That’s an awful lot of subtext for a little bit of sequence. And yet, Villeneuve proves so expert about inserting it, one tends to overlook the symbolism entirely. Aaron Guzikowski’s adapted screenplay, meanwhile, reveals God – or even godlessness – via the arc of several characters. Consider the following, by way of example:

  • Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Here we find the strong, silent type, pushed onto the brink of psychosis. Keller undergoes the most abhorrent transformation of any character in Villeneuve’s movie, particularly because he views himself as justified, immune to the laws of man by ecclesiastical decree. Dover is a survivalist, a humble carpenter who preaches long about the end of days. He keeps one cross around his rear-view mirror and another dangling round his neck. Dover listens to Christian radio (e.g., “Man is brought into trouble not as man, but as sinful man.”). He condones torture only as a means to his own end. He drops to his knees, he offers prayers before sinning, he uses penance as a ruse. Dover is the walking embodiment of conservative values, and his motto, “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” reflects the long-standing eschatological world-view originally predicted via the
    Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). A blue-eyed cop who dresses like a convict and spent his childhood in a boy’s home, Loki’s solved every case he’s ever been assigned. He represents the only major character throughout Prisoners that has no overt attachment to God (save for an Indian-ink tattoo along his hand), family, sex or hobbies. Loki is a loner, and – not so coincidentally – he represents the only ambivalent force for good throughout Denis Villeneuve’s film.
  • Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Following the death of their son, Jones and her husband, who’d previously spent their time “spreading the good word,” considered themselves abandoned. As a result, both began “waging a war” against God. Their M.O.: kidnapping innocent children. Their rationale: “[Taking the one thing people love] turns them into demons.” Holly’s husband became a pedophile, and she, a willing accomplice. The legacy they handed down mutated into something else entirely.
  • Alex Jones (Paul Dano). A grown man with the IQ of a 10-year old, Alex Jones lacks the capacity to understand he’s been complicit in atrocities. During the first sequence of the film, Jones is also the character playing “Put Your Hand in The Hand” on repeat in his vehicle. Add to that the casting of Paul Dano, officially afflicted with the most constipated natural expression in the history of Hollywood, and the insinuation becomes clear.
  • Father Patrick Dunn (Len Cariou). An Irish drunk who is also a registered sex offender, Father Dunn is hiding a corpse inside his basement. Dunn claims he initially abducted his victim because “what he was doing was ungodly.” Hypocrisy resides at the very heart of Prisoners, with almost every major character hiding something in their basement. In Dunn’s case, that “something” happens to be a serial pedophile, one sentenced to an eternity of darkness, surrounded by judgmental stares from blessed Mary and God’s angels.
  • Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian). Taylor is dealing with the long-term repercussions of being violated as a child, perennially reliving the incident as if caught up in a maze. Taylor’s house is full of padlocked compartments full of snakes (Catholicism’s most recognizable symbol for original sin). When faced with the possibility of being charged in an abduction, Taylor opts to kill himself – the only worthwhile escape from a lifelong maze of heartache and despair.

The bottom line: Every character in this movie represents some type of prisoner. And every prisoner, once deprived, resorts to shady dealings in the name of reclamation. Drill down deeper and you’ll find the central message reads like this: “If everything someone believes leads that person into dismay, eventually he or she will turn almost ravenously against it.”

Prisoners, while not a great movie, is certainly one of the strongest metaphorical motion pictures to come down the pike in several years. Villeneuve’s film is making a case for something most major studios wouldn’t touch, and yet it’s masquerading so ingeniously – as a big-budget, A-list, semi-violent Oscar thriller – no one at Warner ever really deigned to care.

Related: “Was 2012’s ‘End of Watch’ Actually a Wide-Screen Metaphor For the Ongoing Plight of Closeted Homosexuals?”

(Prisoners is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.)