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Prisoners is tinged with religion. Keller appears to be a deeply religious man. But he is very flexible with his morality when it comes to torturing Alex Jones for information about his daughter.

Similarly, the villains of the show are two people who have lost their faith in religion and in a bid for vengeance, start kidnapping and killing children.

Then there's the priest who is portrayed as a sex-offender (presumably a child molester) and a murderer.

Amidst all this, we have the more balanced Detective Loki (with a rather "heathen" name?) who is possibly not all that religious. I might be reading too much into his first scene where he is a bit derisive of Chinese fortune cookies.

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    In addition to that Wikipedia says that "during some scenes, he [Loki] wears a ring with a Masonic symbol on it.", which would further emphasize his role as one of the few (if not the only one) reasonably thinking people in this story. Though on the other hand he also "has a number of religious symbols tattooed on his body.". – Napoleon Wilson Nov 15 '13 at 13:37
  • i don't see how we can avoid that interpretation as at least a large thematic thread. also remember the snakes. being cast into a pit. the film also explores the underlying primal brutality at the ready when our loved ones are threatened. a very compelling, though-provoking film i dont think got the consideration it deserved. – theRiley Sep 19 '18 at 2:22
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I think it is more of a commentary on the human nature and behavior under extreme circumstances. Yes, the setting is very religiously painted, but I think it is here more to emphasize the main message, and less to comment on the religion itself.

Let's take a look at the two religious main characters.

  • Keller Dover is a deeply religious, one might say quite typical character (God, family, guns, paranoia from "anything that might happen",...). All that crumbles down when his daughter is kidnapped. He attacks Alex, later on he kidnaps him, tortures him,... By the end, when he is about to kill Alex, he prays:

    ...
    Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we...
    [ breathing heavily ]
    As we for...
    [ exhales sharply ]

    As far as we know, he doesn't finish. At this point, he realizes what he became, how far he strung away from what he believed to be most important to him. However, he also hesitates in killing Alex, and seems cracking under his own deeds, while human and demon in him fight.

  • Holly Jones, as she herself explains:

    My husband and I were very devout at one time. Spent our summers driving around in that camper with our son, handing out pamphlets, spreading the good word.
    After our son died of cancer, we started seeing things differently.

    I see this as another example, in essence not very different from Keller, of deep devotion when things went smooth, and straying from the "good word" (that they themselves were preaching) after they were hit by a family tragedy.

Both of these characters needed a guilty face for their trouble (Keller turned on Alex, while Holly and her husband turned on God), both of them forgot the teaching of their own religion (and, more importantly, humanity) and went to a complete opposite when they faced the loss of a child,... Notice that they both violently attacked little children, since Alex was - very early in the movie - established to have the I.Q. of a ten years old child.

As Holly herself said (my emphasis):

Making children disappear is the war we wage with God. Makes people lose their faith. Turns them into demons like you.

Apart from the wording and apparent direct motivation of a character, this has nothing to do with religion. This direct motivation for killing children does come from Holly's and her husband's religion. Without it, they would have no one to wage their war against, at they would find meaning in killing innocent children. This is not unheard of, people doing terrible things in the name of religion.

I think that this is really the only thing that may be considered as an attack on religion. But I also think it is here more as an explanation of the characters motivation. Instead of a cliche explanation "they are crazy" (which is a shallow explanation that script writers use as a synonym for "we had a good story, but couldn't explain why this all happened"), this gave a nice, realistic explanation of what was going on and why. Religion-crazed people do kill other people, including children, all the time. Random lunatics are not so common in the real world.

It also serves the realism in another way: there are no absolute villains. Keller (almost) lost his daughter, but did terrible - we might say worse than death - things to Alex, who turned out to be just a misunderstood victim. Holly and her husband were monsters, but they themselves suffered the terrible fate of losing a child after leading what they perceived as an exemplary life. Nancy and Franklin didn't directly do as much damage to Alex as Keller did, but they are far from being innocent; however, they had their fair share of pain before walking that path.

If anything, the movie is a commentary on how nothing is black and white, and how people crack when it's about their children, and religion is there as a way of showing that, instead of being the main topic itself.

  • I really need to quote the Joker here: Don't talk like one of them, you're not! [...] See, their morals, their code... it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you, when the chips are down, these... these civilized people? They'll eat each other. This is really not far from what this movie was showing. Maybe the Joker wrote the script and just gave it to Aaron Guzikowski? :-D – Vedran Šego Nov 22 '13 at 23:45
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    Well, in this case I'm really glad Batman didn't kill him. Would have cost us a fine movie, I think. ;-) – Napoleon Wilson Nov 22 '13 at 23:58
  • you make a lot of good points, but the fact that these conflicts are nearly all wrapped in religious ideas/totems must mean that the human nature is to be viewed with respect to some religious context. they went to a lot of trouble setting the scenes this way. it was a thriller set inside a morality play, or verse-visa. – theRiley Sep 19 '18 at 2:27
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An anti-religious commentary? To the contrary, the concept of "faith" is mentioned several times in the movie and clearly wins out in the end:

  • the movie opens with Dover reciting the Lord's Prayer, an expression of faith in God
  • "Pray for the best and prepare for the worst" is Dover's motto and it serves him well
  • Even when everyone else thinks she is dead, Dover keeps the faith he will save his daughter, and he does
  • Despite other cops repeatedly offering discouraging advice, Loki has faith that he can solve the case, and he does
  • Holly Jones abducts and kills children because she has lost her faith and wants other parents to lose theirs, but in the end she is beaten by the faithful Dover and Loki
  • Alex Jones goes through an awful ordeal but is reunited with his original family in the end

One other important faith reference: at the outset, Loki's character doesn't trust the kidnapped kids' parents, probably because of his own troubled childhood... for example, when Anna's mom is describing how there was an intruder in her house, Loki seems to dismiss her story as a hallucination. But the events of the movie help restore his faith, as evidenced in a scene near the end when she says her husband hasn't contacted her and Loki responds "I believe you."

  • i would just observe that having some sort of faith that things will work out, or perhaps an optimistic nature, doesn't translate automatically to religious faith. there is an implicit assertion in your analysis that without religious faith, people are in some sense inhibited or enervated. not necessarily so. :) – theRiley Sep 19 '18 at 2:17
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The title "Prisoners" has a relation with the characters own prisons, based on their own belief systems: religion, justice, family, obsessions. Doing what they think is right for them (not necesarily for others) they fall apart, and the movie is witness of this process.

So, more than anti-religion, i think is more pro-human, in a more nihilistic way.

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