Keller Dover is the kind of guy you wouldn't mind living just down the street from. He's a hard-working carpenter, a God-fearing fellow who loves his family, supports his wife, cares for his friends and neighbors, and teaches his kids the important things of life. He's the kind of man who thinks ahead—a guy who stores up food and supplies in his basement just in case the unexpected happens. 'Cause like his dad always said, you gotta be ready!
Keller wasn't ready, however, for his daughter to go missing. Her disappearance blindsided the Dover family like a runaway truck. They were all over at a neighbor's house enjoying Thanksgiving when out of the blue both his little Anna and the neighbor's girl, Joy, were just … gone.
They called the police, of course. But the cops weren't much help. And by the time the first day had gone by, things were beginning to look dire. The only lead the police could come up with was a greasy, damaged-looking teen who was driving aimlessly around in a dirty old RV. He was just some loser who seemed to have the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. So after a stiff round of questioning, all the cops could do was let the creepy kid go.
By then the investigation was crossing over into day three. And Keller Dover had crossed over from doting dad to frightened father. Things were getting darker for him by the minute. Those poor, sweet girls were out there somewhere, and each passing hour of inaction meant a smaller chance that they'd ever come back alive.
And it wasn't like that kid with the RV was so innocent. "They didn't cry until I left." That's what the guy said right to Keller's face when the police let him go. Nobody else seemed to hear it, but Keller did. There's more to be found there, Keller's sure of it. But everybody around him is just sitting on their hands, saying there's no stinking evidence. There's nothing to be done!
Well, Keller knows what must be done. The cops may not have the stomach to pry the truth out of this loser, but Keller does. And he's got the vacant building and all the tools to get the job done right. He's never been a man prone to violence. But when it's your kid on the line, a man has to be ready.
This is a dark, dark pic with some very ugly moments. But it features a man who prays repeatedly, deeply loves his family and readily makes whatever personal sacrifices are necessary to rescue his young daughter.
It's also quite clear that Detective Loki, the man assigned to the missing girls' case, is a dedicated cop who invests himself totally in solving the crimes set before him. He desperately works to save the missing kids and puts his own life in danger to save a girl from a lethal injection.
The film also raises compelling questions about the devastating impact of immoral choices. We're shown one person who is a picture of evil incarnate, another who struggles but is almost totally consumed by a form of that same slowly corrupting evil, and a third who blanches at his own foul actions and ultimately turns away from them.
It's made perfectly clear that there is a very real spiritual war going on around us, even though we may not see it obviously at work in our day-to-day lives. Keller prays and prays and prays. We hear him lifting up the Lord's Prayer while he and his son are in the woods hunting. He asks for God's forgiveness in the heat of his horrible misdeeds. And even when he's in the midst of a situation that will likely result in his own death, he falls to his knees and prays for the seemingly impossible safety of his dear daughter.
On the other side of the battle, we're told twice that the kidnapping and murder of children is the way a wicked person wages "a war against God." It's stated that that kind of evil can figuratively turn good people into demons. (And we see that happen.)
Keller wears a cross, and Det. Loki has one tattooed on his hand. A local priest stores large religious statues in his basement, and we see candles bearing the image of Jesus.
It's not giving anything away to report that Keller grabs the creepy kid Alex and tortures him for information about the missing girls. We see the man strike Alex repeatedly, slam him violently into walls and the floor, trap him in an enclosed shower device and scald him with a steaming spray, and threaten to break his bones with a hammer. We also see the swollen-eyed, dribbling-blood results of this dreadful pummeling. (It should be noted that this drawn-out torment is especially uncomfortable to watch because we're not quite sure if Alex is a really a vicious villain or merely the mentally handicapped boy that he appears to be.)
A partially mummified corpse is found tied up in a basement. Several trunks are filled with bloodied children's clothes and large snakes. A man is shot in the leg and forced to jump into a deep hole. A forehead wound makes Loki's face bleed profusely. He slams a suspect face-first into a wall, breaking the perp's nose. He also mashes the man's head down on an interview table. He shoots another criminal, splattering her brains all over the wall. A man puts a pistol in his mouth and commits a very messy suicide.
Alex tries to elude the police and crashes his RV into a tree, driving a large limb through the front window of the vehicle. A boy yanks a small dog off the ground by its throat, choking and torturing the whimpering animal. A young teen shoots a deer. We see a pig's head draining of blood in a kitchen sink.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 50 f-words, a dozen s-words and two or three uses each of "h‑‑‑" and "a‑‑." God's and Jesus' names are misused a handful of times; God's is combined with "d‑‑n" twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Keller's wife is so distraught that she's kept drugged with prescription meds; she stumbles about with slurred speech. Keller responds by buying booze and swilling straight from the bottle. We see him eventually pass out from his excess.
The Dovers and Birches drink alcohol during their Thanksgiving festivities. The local police captain pours a tall drink in his office to celebrate the end of a case. Loki finds the priest drunk on the floor, empty bottles lining the table tops in the man's home.
A young girl is injected with a powerful drug that almost kills her. We see the numbing effects of a lesser dose of the stuff on others.
Other Negative Elements
Keller attempts to bring his reluctant neighbor in on Alex's torture by telling him that it must be done or their girls will likely die. "He's not a person anymore," he insists.
Innocents are in danger. Evil is afoot and running wild. An angry "hero" attempts to beat the truth out of his handiest target. That's the kind of Hollywood vengeance-movie formula that we've seen play out so many times before.
In this case, though, things aren't as cut and dried as we may be used to. Just like real life, a heinous baddie isn't so simple to spot in this crowd. The take-action choices aren't so clear or easy to emotionally defend.
In fact, Prisoners' twisting and turning missing-child mystery leaves us with dizzying questions of right and wrong. It smudges the charcoal line between hero and villain. It challenges us to evaluate the choices we make. And it leaves us to consider how evil can surreptitiously slip into our world and corrupt even the best of men through impassioned fear and convulsing rage.
Getting to those walk-out-of-the-theater introspections, however, is a jarring and treacherous and very messy journey. The tale's serial killer revelations are unsettling to say the least, the language coarsely foul, and the literal torture sessions, along with their aftermath visuals, are, well, torturous.