Prisoners – Movie Discussion


These movie discussions are intended to help you connect your Christian faith to the modern world by:

1.  Helping you learn to see echoes of redemptive truth all around you.

2. Challenging you to help other Christians see that their relationship with Jesus cannot be confined to church but must invade our every activity…even our movie-watching.

3. Equipping you to speak Christ into culture by pointing out entry points for significant discussions with non-believers.  Many non-believers won’t accept an invitation to come to church, but they will talk about a movie they’ve seen recently…so we want to help you turn that conversation into an eternally significant discussion.


Prisoners is one of those movies that leaves you deep in thought.  I confess; I called a friend as soon as I left the theater to ask, “What did you think?  Why did this person do that?  I may be confused – these people share this connection, right?  Why do you think they used this image?  What were they trying to say when they shot that scene?” etc.   She wasn’t sure, so she put her daughter on the phone, and we talked about it for a while, about plot, about motivation, about our opinions, about what the director was trying to do or say…  This is one of those movies that – because it already leaves you with some questions or things you want to clarify, because it leaves you with a need to talk about it further – also leaves you with a huge (and easy) opportunity to explore some of the spiritual themes in the movie with others.

The story primarily follows a father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), as he works outside the law to try to find his abducted daughter and her friend.  He is convinced he knows who kidnapped them, but the alleged kidnapper has an I.Q. of a ten year-old, so the police release him, convinced he didn’t have the mental capacity to pull it off.  Keller doesn’t know if the alleged kidnapper did it himself or if he was working with other people, but he remains convinced that he holds the key to finding the girls’ whereabouts.  So he captures and tortures the man, trying to get the information.

How things are framed: 

I was captivated from the very beginning by the idea of framing.  As the movie begins, it’s clear the director was paying careful attention to frame the movie within a certain context.  While some movies jump into the action, this one takes its time with introductions—not so much introducing you to people, but to themes and ideas.  You could say that it sets the stage, or lays a foundation, but I kept thinking of it as a matter of framing.  A frame can have two connotations (at least there are two which come readily to my mind).  The framing in a house gives its structure.  That certainly applies here, but I’m more interested in another kind of frame: the framing around a picture is used to set the picture off to advantage, to highlight it, to showcase it, to draw attention to it.

A frame (of the art variety) goes around the edges.  Around the edges of Prisoners, we have the Lord ’s Prayer.  It starts with Keller saying the Lord ’s Prayer out loud as he’s in the woods hunting with his son.  He says it right before they shoot a deer.  He says it again at the end of the movie, only this time, we only hear a portion of it – “Forgive us our trespasses as we…as we…”  He can’t quite finish the thought.  He wants forgiveness, but can’t quite bring himself to ask for the ability to forgive those who sinned against him, and more importantly, against his daughter.

Along the edges we also have some religious imagery.  Hanging from the rear view mirror in Keller’s car is a cross.  The first few scenes of the movie are shot with that cross either in the foreground or the background. Whether you are looking into the car, or out of the car at the world, that cross is there, always in the picture.

The religious imagery isn’t the only thing in the frame though.  There’s another, very sobering component.  It’s like when you have a nice blue color that might be bright and happy, but then you coat it with a dark stain.  In the end, the blue is still there, but it’s darkened, sobered, tainted because it’s only seen through that dark stain.  This is a dark stain of reality and death and hard decisions.  It’s the idea of sacrificing one for the good of the whole.

So the directors start the movie with what might be a happy blue – the Lord’s prayer, the cross, a father out with his son.  Then they apply the dark stain—as they focus on the idea of “trespasses”, the son shoots; the deer drops dead.  It’s a dark moment.  Not much later, the son is talking with a friend and we get a little clarification about how we are supposed to think about the deer’s death. “D id you feel bad for that deer when you shot it?” the friend asks.  Dylan doesn’t really answer her question about how he feels.  Instead, he misdirects and then focuses on his rationale.  “Did you feel bad for the cow at McDonalds when you ate it? …  If there are too many deer, the babies starve.  You have to keep the population down.”  He doesn’t say if it bothers him, only that it’s necessary.  Some deer have to die or the rest of the deer suffer.  More importantly, baby deer suffer.

These are the things which shape how you see the movie, how you feel what is going to come.  They highlight certain themes and focus your attention.  They explain how characters think and give insight into their motivation.  In fact, the more I think about it, I think I can safely say that almost everyone in the movie is acting from those two paradigms:  somehow God is a part of everything, in the background, or in the foreground; and for the good of the whole, hard decisions must be made and some people must suffer.

God – in the Background or in the Foreground:

I said that God was somehow a part of everything.  I should probably give you a little more support for that, and clarify a few things.  There are obvious signs that God is an integral part of everything in the movie, like the crosses throughout the movie, in the car, tattooed on Detective Loki’s hand, and other religious icons and rituals that are seen, done, hinted at throughout the movie.  I’m not just talking about the “good” guys (and that is muddy here, to say the least), but the bad guys too.  There’s a “Father” (priest) who appears to have been a sex offender.  He killed a man who confessed to abducting children because he wanted to “wage war against God”.  That same man’s wife insinuates that she and her husband used to hand out religious tracts.  God’s in the midst of it all.  Sometimes people appear to be doing things for him (like protecting the innocent), and other times they appear to be doing things against him, because they are mad at him.  Whatever the reason, God’s a key figure—He’s in the picture in some way.

In the way of clarification, it should be understood that just because the characters see God as being a part, they don’t necessarily see God truly, or according to the Bible.  The man who wanted to wage war against God did so because he blamed God for his son’s death.  Keller clearly believes in God at some level, but just as clearly doesn’t trust in God (or God’s ways/laws) when it comes to finding his daughter, which is why he’s willing to “do whatever it takes” to find her.  Because, even though Keller has a belief in God, it’s not the only thing framing the way he looks at the world.  The other key piece of the frame, for Keller, and the others, is that idea of sacrificing one for the good of the whole.

One vs. the Many:

So the idea of sacrificing one for the many is a Christian ideal, but it’s a Christian ideal when a person willingly lays his or her own life down for another.  It quickly becomes something dark and wholly un-Christian when you are sacrificing someone who doesn’t want to be sacrificed.  And that is what we have in this movie, over and over again.

Keller, as we have mentioned already, is more than willing to torture one man to get the location for his daughter and her friend, never mind that the police have determined he isn’t intelligent enough to be held responsible for the answers.  His friend doesn’t agree.  “This ain’t right.  What if you’re wrong?”  Keller doesn’t care about being wrong.  He’s willing to sacrifice this one, even if he is wrong, for the chance of saving his daughter.  “We hurt him until he talks, or they’re gonna die.  That’s the choice we have to make…and  I’ve made my choice.”

Keller is waging war against the people who took his daughter, and in a war people die—even innocent people.  They are the unfortunate casualties of the greater good.  In this, Keller is really no different from the people who abducted his daughter.  They too are waging war against the person who took their child.  And in their war, lots of innocent people have to die, unfortunate casualties of what is to them the greater good.  It’s just that their war is against God, and the way they are getting back at God is to make other people lose their faith.  The best way to make people lose their faith in God is the same way they lost theirs, to lose a child.

So there it is, Keller and his child’s abductors are all operating through the same basic principles. They have the same basic frame for how they see their lives, the same structure upon which their actions are built.  God is always in the picture, somehow, for good or bad; and sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

The Result:

While I don’t really think anyone would say Keller and his abductors are equal in their crimes, (the abductors delight in hurting masses of innocents in their war against God, whereas Keller feels awful about hurting one man who he is convinced is not entirely innocent and does know the answer to the girls’ whereabouts), I think most of us feel about Keller the way his friend, Franklin did—that he was going too far and it was wrong.  Keller was on a slippery slope—the same slippery slope the abductors were on, even if he hadn’t slid as far.  Keller did come close to finding his daughter, but he wasn’t able to save her (don’t worry, she is saved, just not by him), and in the process, he ended up needing rescue himself.  Not to mention the fact that he was going to end up in jail for his own crimes.  So not only did he not actually rescue his daughter, but his family was going to lose him in the end.

What Went Wrong:

I think there are two problems with the frame which set Keller (and the abductors) up for a dangerous course of action.  The first is the misguided understanding of sacrifice which we’ve already mentioned.  It’s a beautiful thing when someone willingly lays their own life down for the salvation of others (as Jesus did).  It’s a horrific thing when someone decides to make a sacrifice of someone else, someone who doesn’t want to participate, for their own agenda.  Frankly, we all do this in a million different ways when we claim our “rights.”  We insist all the time that others should have to sacrifice their rights for the good of our rights.  Whose rights win?  Who decides who has the right “rights”?  Slippery slope indeed.

The other problems with the frame is that, even though God is always in the picture, there is no theological understanding of who God is with which to understand His involvement and view events.  Therefore, there’s no sense of whether or not God is good or evil, powerful or impotent, etc.  The abductors are furious God for their son’s death—because they see God as sovereign but cruel.  Keller looks to God for forgiveness, but not for guidance or help.  It appears he thinks God is impotent because he thinks it’s entirely on him to get his daughter back.  What you think about God affects the way you act.

There’s one other piece of the frame which is wrong.  It’s a combined result of the previous two errors, but needs to be mentioned—Keller (and the abductors) valued their children more than God’s law.  It sounds good when you hear someone say they put their family first.  We should put our families first—right?  Wrong.  Our families are important, but they are not primal; they are not first.  God is first.  God always must be first.  When families (and/or our children in particular) become first, then we have made an idol of them, and broken the first commandment—no other gods before Me (God).   If Keller had valued God’s law more than his daughter, he would have avoided jail and been able to be a dad to his daughter upon her return.  His mistakes are ultimately a result of some bad framing. His judgments may have seemed good and honorable and loving, but they were off.

Our own personal framing shapes the way we see the world, and ultimately determines how we act.  It’s critical that we evaluate our framing and see what it’s comprised of.  It’s not enough to simply recognize God’s involvement, we must have a correct understanding of WHO He is.  It’s not enough that we love our families, we have to make sure we have them in the proper place.  We can’t just take our framing for granted because we are “good people.”  Keller was a “good person” but in the end, his actions were hardly any different than the “bad people.”  Why?  Because even though the picture in his frame was prettier than picture in theirs, the frame itself was made from the same materials.

Questions for Discussion:

  • When Dylan and his friend talk about shooting the deer, he defends his actions by explaining that some older deer must die so that the young deer don’t starve and suffer.   The implication here is that young, innocent life matters and must be protected, and it’s the responsibility of the older to sacrifice for the younger.  How do you see this play out in the movie?  Do you agree with this idea?  Disagree?  Are there limits or boundaries that need to be set (i.e. can it go too far)?
  • It appears that the characters in the movie see that God is always there, somehow.  Do you think God is always there in life?  In YOUR life?  Why or why not?
  • What would you think about God, based on this movie alone (i.e. if you knew nothing about God except for what you gathered from this movie)?
  • How do you think the characters in this movie misunderstand God?  How do you think they understand Him correctly?
  • The abductors were mad at God.  Have you ever been mad at God?  Why?
  • What do you think about the sacrifices people make in this movie for their own agendas?  Which do you sympathize with?  Which do you disagree with?  What’s the distinction?
  •  How do you think Jesus would have acted if He had been in Keller’s shoes?  Or, how would He have told Keller to act?
  • What are the things in your frame?  What shapes the way you view the world?  Are there things in your frame which you think are unhealthy for your perspective?  How can you change them?

by Stacey Tuttle

Click here to read quotes from Prisoners.