“The Eyes of Others Are Our Prisons; Their Thoughts our Cages” (Virginia Woolf)

Film Review by Franco Ferrarini, gastroenterologist and film reviewer

‘Prisoners’ directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA, 2013)

Warning: the review contains plot spoliers!

Villeneuve’s film, as clearly stated by its title, deals with the theme of captivity, not just physical but also, and perhaps mainly, psychological incarceration. ‘Prisoners’ is not just a compelling thriller with beautiful photograpy by Roger A. Deakins and outstanding acting from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman; underneath the apparent simplicity of its plot, complex psychological and philosophical issues are cleverly embedded.

In a small Pennsylvania town two little girls are kidnapped (the first prisoners); what follows is the oft-told story of the policeman, in this film detective Loki (Jack Gyllenhaal), trying to solve the case. Loki is consumed by fighting both the father of one of the girls, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who accuses Loki of not doing enough, while Loki’s chief, Captain O’Malley (Wayne Duvall) thinks that he is too emotionally involved.

Notwithstanding the simplicity of the plot, if we start to analyze individual characters, things get much more interesting. Even the detective’s name ‘Loki’ has significant connotations: Loki was the God of the ancient Norse Pantheon who kept the world in balance by swinging between Good and Evil, just as detective Loki tries to juggle the two opposing influences of Keller Dover and O’Malley.

Keller, an ex-alcoholic who is prone to outbursts of violent behaviour, is utterly convinced that Loki is wrong in not pursuing Alex (Paul Dano), a mentally unstable young man. Determined to execute justice, Keller decides to abduct Alex and locks him up (another prisoner). Using physical violence and torture techniques, Keller is confident that Alex will ultimately confess to his crime. But Keller himself is a prisoner of his obsession with Alex’s guilt; his behaviour can be analysed by the ‘cognitive dissonance’ theory.[1] According to this theory, a situation of cognitive dissonance arises in the presence of a mismatch between one’s attitudes/beliefs and reality. This mismatch (a dissonance) must be removed to re-establish a situation of harmony; given that it is difficult to change one’s attitudes/beliefs, one unconsciously may end up twisting her/his interpretation of reality.

Let us now turn to Melissa (Holly Hunt), an old widow with whom Alex lives. We learn that she lost her only son at a very young age. At the end of the film it turns out that she is the culprit of the two girls’ abduction and that she, together with her late husband, had previously kidnapped both Alex himself and another boy, Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian). Melissa is thus a true serial kidnapper, psychologically imprisoned by the loss of her young son. In many serial criminals’ past life one can often find some explanation for their criminal behaviour; these can be physical and/or psychological abuse in childhood, dysfunctional families or other types of traumas.[2] We as viewers might be led to believe that in Melissa’s case, a feeling of past injustice of being deprived  of her son compelled her to “rebalance” the situation by depriving other families of their children. Such pathological response to the “Why me?” feeling was described in some bereaved parents.[3]

Reflecting on the film themes, an important question arises: can anyone be absolutely free? Freedom is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action’. Such definition highlights another question: as human beings, are we all destined for imprisonment? Human beings must inevitably adjust  their social attitude and behaviour  to live with others,[4] follow the rules of family, community and society, thus by definition true freedom does not and cannot exist for any living human being. From this point of view one may speculate that true freedom implies no social relationships whatsoever. But our identity is strongly shaped by these relationships, that is by the way others see us (or at least by the way we think others see us), hence the lack of absolute freedom is fundamental to maintain our social identity. Thus by default no human being is free and we are all ‘prisoners’!

Remembering the two little girls kidnapped at the beginning of the film, in the last scene the camera lingers on their faces, void of any expression even amidst the joy of their parents. Such joyless stance could be a clue that their future behaviour will be heavily influenced by their traumatic abduction and captivity. It is possible that they will be psychologically imprisoned for the rest of their lives, and the vicious cycle goes on.



[1] Leon Festinger: A theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press, 1957.

[2] Leistedt S, Linkowski P, The serial murder: a few theoretical perspectives. Rev Med Brux 2011;32(3):169-78.

[3] Pohlkamp L et al, Bereaved mothers’ and fathers’ prolonged grief and psychological health 1 to 5 years after loss – A nationwide study. Psychooncology 2019;28(7):1530-6.

[4] Aristotle, “Politics”, 350 B.C.E. https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Politics.pdf

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