Here is another in my series of film structure breakdowns…
PRISONERS, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is a terrific crime film, filled with rich characters, a gritty setting and a strong three act structure. It also has complex backstories and like any good mystery, the puzzle pieces come together in a way that’s wholly satisfying.
At two and a half hours, it’s long. But the Three Act Structural Landmarks space out appropriately throughout.
SPOILER ALERT! I am about to reveal the entire plot of this movie.
ORDINARY WORLD: We see the normal life of the main character, KELLER DOVER (Hugh Jackman.) He’s out hunting a deer with his teenaged son. He tells his son to always be prepared for the worst.
INCITING INCIDENT: On Thanksgiving, Keller, his wife GRACE (Maria Bello), his son and eight-year-old daughter ANNA walk down the street to another family’s house for dinner. This couple, FRANKLIN (Terrence Howard) and NANCY (Viola Davis) have two daughters, one the age of Keller’s older son, and a younger, JOY, the same age as Anna. After dinner, the two little girls ask to walk over to Anna’s house to look for her lost whistle. Slightly drunk, the parents say yes.
The girls disappear.
While all the parents are frantically looking for them, Keller’s son says that earlier, the girls crawled on top of a creepy camper that was parked in the neighborhood. They could hear a radio inside and knew someone was there. They call the police.
DETECTIVE LOKI (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives and tells Keller he’s solved all of his cases and will find his daughter. Loki finds the RV and takes down the young man inside, ALEX JONES (Paul Dano.) Loki brings him in for questioning. He has the intelligence of a ten year old.
Loki thinks Alex is innocent, but Keller thinks he’s guilty.
Loki investigates all local sex offenders, and finds a priest with the long dead body of a man in his basement. The priest says the dead guy confessed to taking 16 children.
ACT I TURNING POINT: Loki releases Alex. In the parking lot of the police station, Keller attacks Alex. The young man taunts him by whispering (in NOT a ten-year-old voice), “The only time they cried was when I left them.” Alex’s feeble aunt HOLLY (Melissa Leo) defends her nephew. Keller is now sure Alex is guilty.
FOLLOW THE TRAJECTORY CREATED BY THE FIRST TURNING POINT: Keller begins to stalk Alex. Alex sees Keller and does something cruel to his own dog, and sings a song the girls were singing right before they disappeared.
Furious, Keller kidnaps Alex and brings him to an old abandoned house. He’s going to hold him prisoner until he confesses. Franklin, the other girl’s father, is helping him.
Loki interviews the priest. The priest says the dead guy was religious. Told him he was “Waging a war against God.”
Keller tortures Alex to try to get him to tell where the girls are. Alex won’t talk.
MIDPOINT: At a vigil for the girls in front of Franklin’s house, Loki sees a creepy guy wearing a hoodie. Loki starts to follow him and the guy runs away. Loki chases but loses him (now we have another suspect.) This is actually the point where my husband turned to me and said, “Where does this movie take place? Perv County U.S.A?”
Loki pursues clues about the hoodie guy. Franklin and Keller continue to interrogate/torture Alex. Alex still refuses to talk.
Hoodie sneaks into Franklin and Keller’s houses. While investigating the break-ins, Loki sees lye in Keller’s basement, begins to suspect him.
THE BIG GLOOM (remember, this is usually a series of events).
Loki follows Keller, but discovers a clue that leads him to the hoodie guy. Hoodie has the girls’ clothes with blood on them. Loki tells the parents their daughters are dead. Keller does NOT believe him. Will not give up. Hoodie shoots himself in the head. Now they won’t ever know where the girls’ bodies are. Keller tortures Alex more. Finally, Alex (whose face seriously looks like it’s going to explode from his wounds) breaks, and says the girls are in the “maze.” The cops discover that the blood on the girls’ clothes was pig blood and hoodie probably took the clothing when he broke into the houses. He’s a copycat, not the real abductor.
Keller goes to Alex’s house, talks to his Aunt Holly. He apologizes for attacking Alex in the parking lot, tries to get info on the “maze.” Holly says that her young son died from cancer years ago. Alex is all she has.
Keller is distraught. Time is ticking out on his daughter and he has nothing.
ACT II TURNING POINT: Franklin’s little girl turns up alive. She can’t tell Keller where Anna is but says, “They put tape on her mouth.” And Keller knows who did it.
Loki finds Alex in the abandoned building and rescues him.
RACE TO CLIMAX: Keller goes back to Alex’s Aunt’s house. He says he knows the girls were here. That she and Alex took them.
CLIMAX: The aunt holds Keller at gunpoint. She says that Alex never wanted to hurt the girls. She and her husband, who ran out on her years ago, were distraught about their son’s death and were “waging a war on God.” She cuffs Keller and makes him crawl into a hole underneath a car that’s parked outside her house. He refuses. She shoots him in leg. Trapped down there, he finds Anna’s whistle.
Loki goes to notify the Aunt that they found Alex. He realizes she is the bad guy. They get into a shootout. Loki kills her. He races with Anna, who’s been drugged, to the hospital.
BRIEF RESOLUTION: Anna is saved. We discover that Alex was actually one of the boys taken by Holly and her husband a long time ago. Keller is missing. Loki thinks he ran away because he knew he would go to jail for kidnapping and torturing Alex.
Loki goes to the aunt’s house to check with the CSI people who are there. They’ve found nothing, and leave for the night. Loki stands there, in the snow, then hears a tiny, weak whistling sound coming from underneath the ground.
If you’re writing a mystery, this is a great script to study for structure. It’s complicated, but if you look at the moving pieces, they all line up and make perfect sense in the end.
The main character has a strong goal—to find his daughter. The antagonist is just as strong—he will NOT reveal her location. As in most great crime/mysteries, the bad guy is revealed to be just the person fronting for the true mastermind. The detective in this movie serves to create red herrings and perform the final rescue of Keller.
What more could you ask of a crime drama set in Perv County U.S.A.?