Much has been written of the currently playing movie “Prisoners” and its heavy use of Christian symbolism. Some critics have decried the movie as being heavy-handed with the dogma: others have extolled it for elevating a relatively straight-forward thriller movie. For myself, I spent the first half of the movie questioning whether the symbolism was necessary — in the second half I sat back and merely admired the way it mirrored the plot.
People constantly complain about movie adaptations being worse than the original book, the source material. My theory? An author has to think about everything. Words are precious. Every sentence needs to have a purpose, including the descriptive passages. The tone needs to be the same throughout, and theme needs to be coherent as paragraphs transition between dialogue, narrative structure, and physical description. Movies sometimes forget that — the background is merely a set piece, it doesn’t say anything. So I appreciated that in “Prisoners”: everything meant something. Almost every Chekhovian gun went off, and every camera angle was carefully considered. Once the symbolism was decoded, it could be tracked to figure out the plot.
The clearest symbolism throughout the novel was based upon Christianity. The first shot involved the main character reciting a Biblical verse, while his son shoots a deer. Immediately following the scene, the camera focuses on a cross (I couldn’t tell if it was a cross or a crucifix) swaying from the rearview mirror of the character’s (Dover) truck. We soon learn that Dover is a carpenter. Because he’s played by Hugh Jackman, we know that the movie will focus on him, on his sorrow, his grief, his turmoil. The message is clear: this is our Messianic character.
A little more is learned about Dover — that he stockpiles in his basement, is prepared for anything, loves Springsteen and the Star-Spangled banner. This is a man who sees in black and white. His faith does not align with the Judaic tradition of questioning — it is a stark world of good and evil.
The beauty of the movie is in how little dialogue it takes for us to learn these facets. We see them in the background, in the setting, in little asides and brief glimpses of cans in a basement. It’s a classic case of “show, don’t tell” and it’s beyond effective.
Then there are the trees: the movie begins, as I already stated, in the woods. The whole movie takes place in rural Pennsylvania — rife with the deep woods. The crosses displayed throughout the film are wooden. Dover’s best friends are the Birches. At one point, when an RV crashes into a tree, there is a long moment in which the camera focuses on a tree branch that has broken through the tree. The symbolism is simple and striking — who can help but associate wood with the crucifix. There is something wholesome about wood, something pure — it features strongly in the Christian narrative, but also in pagan faiths — there are gods in the woods, (Old Gods, if you read Game of Thones). Every religion, it seems, associates at least one god with the woods.
Perhaps this is the symbolism spoken of in so many woods — the clear crosses shown in mirrors, in tattoos, in backgrounds of shots — but the movie goes beyond.
There are three suspects throughout the movie. The first suspect is an RV-driving man with the intelligence of a ten year old (Alex Jones). We know next to nothing about him, at the beginning — everything that we learn is through the words of his aunt, who adopted him and raised him. The second suspect is a priest, with a mysterious hidden basement who confesses to having killed at least two men. There is, then, a suspect who is a Father, and a suspect who is a Son. Sure enough, about an hour into the film, another suspect emerges — a man whose name we do not know, whose backstory we do not know — a man who flees when we first meet him, but somehow sneaks into houses and elude the cops. A ghost.
Why’d it have to be snakes?
There is no more clear representation of evil in Christian dogma than the snake. Satan is, of course, referred to as a serpent, time and again. There are Christian creation myths in which the snake is deprived of legs and forced to crawl along the earth because it aided Satan. And, in its most traditional form, there is the snake in the story of Adam and Eve. In “Prisoners” the snake makes two separate appearances. We are told that the father of one suspect kept snakes — we later find that a youth who was abducted by that father keeps snakes. The father had abducted at least 16 children: the youth did not abduct any, and he locked the snakes away in caskets, creating a kind of Pandora’s box of snakes and evil — an attempt, one assumes, to lock away the evil of his past. A detective, of course, opens the box and lets the snakes free.
The Roman Soldier
In a fun twist, our original Messianic character, Dover, “turns to the dark side” about halfway through the movie — desperate to recover his daughter, he grabs the first suspect, kidnaps him, ties him to a sink, and proceeds to torture him. Not exactly the most Christian of actions. It’s likely that the filmmakers wanted the audience to agree with Dover — to believe that the suspect had abducted the girls, and was the main villain — to agree with Dover that he knew something. Halfway through the film, we discover that Dover is not as certain as he’s been acting — he has his doubts. But, in his belief of black/white, in his firm gender-role of protector, he is not allowed to have doubt. He tortures the man, and turns to carpentry as the final form of torture — Jesus was put to the cross, but in “prisoners” it is a more modern torture — an isolated chamber with water torture, alternately scalding hot and freezing cold. As Dover turns to carpentry, he converts into the ROman soldier, who begs forgiveness from a God that he isn’t certain he believes in, while the only person who can deliver forgiveness and truth, is within his wooden creation.
What made the film even more tantalizing fun to follow was the juxtaposition of the more familiar Christian symbolism with the ancient and more confusing Nordic. On the one side we have Dover and the Birches, with their children Grace and Hope, with their wooden crosses and carpentry. On the other is Detective Loki (Gyllenhal) who has tattoos with origins in the zodiac, judaism, christianity, and the freemasons. His name — Loki (a Nordic God) is out first hint that there is symbolism beyond the apparent Christian.
The Maiden in the Labyrinth
Mazes are a recurrent theme — a corpse found in the priests’ basement wears a maze-like pendant — one of the suspects repeatedly draws crosses — and, when tortured, Dover learns from his suspect that his daughter is “in the maze.”
Mazes are not a terribly important component of Christian mythology — in Greek, Roman, and Nordic mythologies, however, they abound. Nordic mythology in particularly involves a “maiden in a labyrinth” — a girl, generally a princess, who is at the center of a labyrinth, guarded by a troll-like creature. In Prisoners, it is made clear early on that Dover will find his daughter “in the maze.” Unfortunately, this is one of the uncertain symbols of the movie — outside of the traditional “maze of suspects” that appears in every thriller movie, there is never a “maze” in the film — apparently we are supposed to be satisfied that the original villain was fascinated by mazes, and passed that sick fascination on to every one of the children he abducted.
Couldn’t resist a photo of Anthony Hopkins as Odin.
Another frequent visual in the film is that of the single eye. After being tortured by Dover, Jones has one eye that is bruised so much that it is permanently shut — in later scenes, he is filmed so that the light falls only on his one, open eye. And, during the climax, Gyllenhal’s character is shot just over his left eye, so that blood seeps into it, pops blood vessels, and veils his vision. In Christian mythology, there is limited symbolism of a single eye (at least that I know of). In Nordic mythology, however, the God Odin gives up one eye to the Three Fates in exchange for Wisdom. In Prisoners, Jones is the one character who, from start to finish, knows and is willing to divulge the location of the missing girls — similarly, Gyllenhal is blinded when he discovers a girl. Wisdom comes with its price.
I am certain that there are other symbols that I missed — but what was there gave heft. The central theme — taking justice into ones own hands — is furthered by the symbolism. Religion is meant to give meaning and explanation to the world in which we live — it helps to inform, teach, and help us in living positive, valued lives. In “Prisoners” everything is distorted — a safe suburb is no longer safe, a Christian man no longer embodies Christian values, and the martyr is both villain and hero. It makes for a compelling backdrop to a movie.
In novels, there are “books/stories/novels” and there is “literature” and we all know there is a difference. In movies, no such differentiation exists. If there were, however, I am confident that “Prisoners” would lift itself above the rabble to movie-literature.