Warning: spoilers below.
Prisoners is a thriller about Keller Dover’s search for his kidnapped daughter and her friend. The no-nonsense sleuths, moral ambiguity, and bloody interrogation scenes may sound like textbook noir, but Prisoners goes beyond its archetypes to deliver a plot that twists like its prevalent maze symbolism.
Here are 3 lessons I learned about writing compelling crime fiction from Prisoners.
1. Coincidences solve the crime.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, channeling both Donnie Darko’s complexity and Tom Hiddleston’s hair) smashes a keyboard over his desk in anger and two clues piece themselves together on the floor. He happens to spot a suspicious-looking loiterer at a vigil for the lost girls, and ties the man to a grisly thirty-year history of abducted children, which later solves the present day crime.
Loki also happens to catch Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman with fangs bared) walking towards his deceased father’s abandoned property, which is also where he’ll later discover the missing and bloody Alex Jones (Paul Dano, playing the main suspect). And, of course, with a computer and a seemingly endless supply of archived newspaper articles at his disposal, deductive reasoning comes easily at the click of a few buttons, even when an abandoned RV is the only clue you have to work with.
2. Don’t be afraid to play with archetypes.
Aggressive-With-A-Dark-Past Keller Dover and his Passive-And-Mostly-Inactive-When-Not-Weeping wife Grace are almost caricatures of parents in mourning. Their more sensible counterparts, Franklin and Nancy Birch, effectively offset the Dovers’ hysterical performances and inject the story with some much needed realism.
Keller Dover is a loud cinematic concoction, an exception in the pool of parents with stolen children, and needs foils, such as the level-headed Detective Loki, to be relatable to the audience. At the same time, archetypes are also responsible for Prisoners’ excellent plot twists. C’mon, pedophile glasses for Alex Jones? The shaggy hair and white RV? Who would peg his soft-spoken aunt as a serial child murderer?
3. The best resolution is none at all.
For those that watched the movie, did you think that the red whistle blown by a near-death Keller Dover resembled the Christian fish symbol? The religious imagery throughout the movie was brought back full-circle in the best and most poignant way possible. Does Detective Loki find the trapped Keller dying under Holly Jones’ old car? Is the shattered Christian faith—the same one that drove Holly Jones and her husband to abduct and kill children as part of their “war on God”—redeemed when Keller’s whistle saves him from certain death?
Prisoners ends with a close-up of Loki’s confused face while the whistle sounds in the distance, which chillingly mirrors the ambiguity of faith and morality we face on a day-to-day basis.
What did you think of Prisoners? Are there any movies that changed the way you looked at writing?