May 12, 2014

Video: Possibly the Most Comprehensive 30-Minute Analysis of 'Prisoners' You've Ever Seen

One of the things I appreciate about cinema is that films are enigmatic. Many times the films we see when we're kicking back and watching as passive spectators are not the same films we see when we sit up, pen and pad in hand, and unfurl the cinematic message in its entirety. This video essay by Darren of Must See Films attempts to unearth all of the subtle ways director Denis Villeneuve and legendary DP Roger Deakins try to communicate through the film Prisoners. It breaks down many aspects of the film, like the blocking, costuming, and aesthetic choices, as well as its symbolism, motifs, and patterns, offering a richer, more well-rounded understanding of not only the film itself, but of just how complex and intricate visual storytelling actually is.

First, here's the trailer to Prisoners.

Take a look at this excellent analysis of Prisoners, but if you haven't seen the film yet, I definitely recommend watching it so you can follow along. Click here to buy it on Amazon.

I have to warn you, there are spoilers ahead, so watch at your own risk:

One time in a film class, we watched A Simple Plan, directed by Sam Raimi, for the purpose of analyzing it to shreds. After some good discussion about the bird motif, as well as the symbolism of the snow in the film, one of my classmates, who seemed pretty skeptical about our discourse, asked our professor, "Is all of this intentional really? Couldn't the filmmakers have just done some of this stuff by accident?" My professor, and I'm still inspired by her words to this day, said, "Nothing in cinema is an accident."

Of course -- there are accidents. One of the most famous of these was In Cold Blood's "Hopeless Dreams" scene in which droplets of rain on a window get projected onto Robert Blake's face, making him look he's crying. The film's DP, Conrad L. Hall admits that this brilliant visual technique was a complete accident -- but a good one, so they left it in.

You can hear from Hall himself talk about the scene in the video below. He talks about it around the 3:00 mark.

So, sure -- accidents and happy mistakes do happen in films, however the vast majority of what you see on-screen came from the imaginations and careful planning of incredibly talented artists. As you'll see in the analysis of Prisoners below, it's not only the narrative and cinematography that speak to audiences. Of course, shooting one character from a high angle and another from a low angle sets up a hierarchy right off the bat; having a character return, at the end of the film, to the place he was at the beginning is symbolic of many different things. However, films also communicate through symbolism (the color red in The Sixth Sense), motifs (the eyes, hands, birds, flies in Hitchcock's Psycho), and patterns (it's often said that anything of significance in a film shows up 3 times on-screen).

red sixth sense

Psycho birds

Analyzing films on different levels other than their basic narrative structures and basic aesthetic and cinematographic principles will show you not only how detailed and intricate films can be, but how detailed and intricate you can make them. The creative real estate is there!

What did you think of the analysis? Let's analyze Prisoners in the comments below!

[via Must See Films]

Your Comment

25 Comments

speaking analysis, I came across this video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WAjdhWOMGI&feature=youtu.be

May 12, 2014 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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batou

This guy's paranoia is off the charts. Thanks, I enjoyed that.

May 13, 2014 at 12:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christian Anderson

Can't see it due copyright issues in Estonia! Too bad :(

May 14, 2014 at 5:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Amazing post. Prisoners was my favourite movie from last year, I saw it twice in theatres, a few times since and I still didn't pick up everything this review went into.

Of course, there is a bunch of conjecture but it still well presented and interesting.

May 12, 2014 at 10:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I loved the film as well, saw it with my wife in Brussels, we were actually going for Gravity (which I liked as well for other reasons), but switched last minute while seeing the trailer with no sound above the lady selling the tickets. The tone of the film and colors struck me and we decided to go for prisoners. Definately my favourite film of last year (with so many great films). It has that athmosphere and perfect build of suspense that I like so much in films but rarely see. Also some good suprises and plot twists I didnt see coming.

May 13, 2014 at 4:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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prisoners was the best movie of 2013

bonds cinematographer did amazing with this project

May 12, 2014 at 10:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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jessica othello

Prisoners is easily some of Deakins' best work.

Matthew Scott has written probably the best shot/scene breakdown and analysis of Prisoners and is well worth a read if you found this post interesting: http://bit.ly/MmIQdg

May 13, 2014 at 4:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sam

I have never posted on this website but i read it all the time... Prisoners was one of the best movies i have seen recently!!! Dope movie, me and my girl loved it!!! we watch a lot of movies together... that youtube analysis was very thorough... I didn't notice the little things about each character and their backgrounds... Some of the stuff the expect you to read into a lot!!! one of the best endings I have seen in a movie, gives me a lot of respect for the people who made this.. Genius level... I am not a film maker, i am a musician but film and music go hand in hand these days... shows me the level of thought put into it.. A+++++

May 13, 2014 at 4:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It's blocked in France due to copyrights... Can't play it, too bad !

May 13, 2014 at 5:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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matray

Yeah, please if you really like or french-fries please make sure that we are allowed to join in. Imagine junk food without french-fries how life will be dull (don't tell us they not healthy, we 're not here to complain about our lot in life)... We did also contribute as a nation a little to cinéma since the Lumière Brothers... Film makers are one brotherhood, over-here across the atlantic you have a solid following... as much as I respect international copyrights there must be a way to keep our crowd here happy? You have to admit that's a worthy cause? At least do it for the french-fries!
From Paris with luv

May 13, 2014 at 8:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Toufek

We could almost get by in life without Ketchup, but YOU could you, without our french-fries? Let's us watch those goodies...

May 13, 2014 at 8:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Toufek

Nobody here up to some creative mischief? Give us a link to RuTube for Godly art's sake! Please.

May 13, 2014 at 4:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Toufek

Creepy voice...

May 13, 2014 at 8:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joachim

Great analysis. I thought he'd mention how Keller's interrogation with the hammer very closely resembles the crucifixion of Jesus. Keller as the crucifier poised to hammer into the hand of a battered Alex.

May 14, 2014 at 12:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Guy

cant watch it in canada. Boo!

+1 Prisioners was the best film of 2013

May 14, 2014 at 1:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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The link doesn't work anymore :(

May 14, 2014 at 11:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ben

I was waiting forward to watching it - but it's blocked
too bad

May 14, 2014 at 2:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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lana

This should be allowed on Youtube per Fair Use. Lame.

May 15, 2014 at 2:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tim

You write an entire article which showcases someone's work, but you don't credit the person who's work it is? Give credit where credit is due perhaps?...it doesn't take much, and makes the world go round. Darren Foley is the guys name, and hats off to him for creating content for your site :)

May 15, 2014 at 5:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Hey Matthew,

I did, actually. There's a link at the bottom to Must See Films. I actually looked for Darren's last name so I could attribute it to the video, but couldn't find it.

May 15, 2014 at 7:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Darren was nice enough to post it in on Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/95436466.

May 16, 2014 at 12:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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John Thomas

First time in years that I had a panic attack occurred while watching this film. I almost left the theater, but stuck through it. My friend and I left completely at a loss to speak. For me at least, the scenes all shot in hometown of Atlanta (didn't know that going in) touched a nerve. One of the top five movies of that year.

Thank you for the analysis. It is the best way to learn other than doing the edit on your own films, re-editing, re-editing….

May 16, 2014 at 9:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Laura Daniell

You need to take part in a contest for one of the finest blogs
on the internet. I am going to recommend this website!

June 1, 2014 at 4:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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You may like this small tribute to Prisoners too; https://vimeo.com/96841440

July 15, 2014 at 9:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Myself

Concerning the "nothing is accedental" anecdote, I don't really think the intentions of the film-maker are all that relevant :). Or rather, what you see on the screen is what is there to see, and intentional or not, it will be more or less meaningful to the viewer. While watching a film, one cannot be guessing what the director was thinking at a given time, it's there on the screen and it forms a meaningful whole along with other visual and aural signs. It's pretty much out of the authors hands already. Of course, most of what we see in a movie is intentional (especially in auteur-cinema), but even the accidental details can be seen as there on purpose. When the artist has chosen a visual style and motif that's in line with the subject of the film, the details seem to fall into place, even if it's not consciously done. The director/cinematographer/editor will instinctively know what fits and what doesn't. Now, how deep an analysis of a film should go, is a completely different question...

July 15, 2014 at 10:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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GE