The “Prisoners” Screenwriter Talks About Its Crazy Ending: Spoilers!

Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, says, “I was very surprised that we were allowed to keep that ending.” Spoilers start RIGHT AWAY.

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, with Hugh Jackman. All photos by Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures

Did the whistle work, for God’s sake?

Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, was released nearly a month ago, and its cliffhanger ending has lingered with me. A refresher: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki has wrapped up the kidnapping mystery, and Melissa Leo’s character, the creepy Holly Jones, is dead. Everyone thinks that Keller (Hugh Jackman) has run away in order to elude the police (since he tortured Alex, who turned out to be innocent). But in fact, he’s down a damn hole in Holly’s back yard! Where she left him to die. In the film’s final moments, Loki, about to leave the crime scene, thinks he hears something (it’s poor Hugh Jackman, down the hole, blowing his daughter’s whistle). Fade to black! No!

I talked to Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski about the ending.

On the decision to end the movie with a cliffhanger:
“Oddly enough, that’s how it was in the script when it was bought. And it never really changed. When we were shooting, we did shoot a version where it goes a little beyond where the fade out is. There’s a version where he moves the car and sees Hugh down there, and so on. None of us really wanted to do that version, but we wanted to make sure we had it in case once the film was put together it seemed like it really needed it. But after testing the film with the ending it has now, everyone decided that was definitely the way to go. Joel Cox, the editor, felt very strongly about it. I just think that’s the moment when the movie is ready to end.”

And the ending that was shot but didn’t get used was…
“They move the car. They see he’s down there. You know he’s going to be taken out of the hole. I like it much better being ambiguous. Even though you assume that’s what’s probably going to happen, I like that there’s a small chance that he’s not going to get him out of there for whatever reason.”

But Detective Loki is so tenacious during the movie. Is there a scenario where he’d actually walk away?
“No, I think there’s a small percent chance that for some strange reason he might decide not to get the guy up. In my mind he would: Those two guys have a strange connection that they form over the course of the movie. That seems to be the logical next step for Jake’s character at that moment.”

On why the studio was (atypically) fine with an oblique ending:
“I was very surprised that we were allowed to keep that ending. I was surprised I was able to get the movie made, actually. It’s a pretty dark script. Especially ending the way it does. It’s definitely a testament to Alcon, the producers on the movie, sticking by the script and not wanting to make it into something it wasn’t.”

In a fantasy world where we saw what happened to Keller after he’s out of the hole, things would not have gone well for him:
“I think, unfortunately, he would go to prison. The final irony — his father was a prison guard, and the whole movie is metaphors of people’s internal prisons, external prisons. I believe that’s what would end up happening to him: that he would go to prison for some time.”

Melissa Leo and Paul Dano.

On why casting Melissa Leo was both good news and bad news:
“Obviously, she’s a tremendous actress and I knew she would be perfect for this role. The only thing is when you’re trying to conceal the importance of the character and you then cast an award-winning actor for what seems on the outside to be a smaller role, you do run the risk of giving away that this character may be playing a larger part than may first meets the eye. But I think because Denis is kind of a genius director, it still manages to remain concealed, and you don’t think about it too much. But she is just amazing. I do think that’s the one tricky thing with a role like that: to cast someone who’s a known, big-time actor without tipping your hand. It still seemed to work. I think people were still surprised, which was a huge relief to me.”

Poor Alex (Paul Dano) has had the worst life ever. Is there hope for him?
“I would hope there’s a way back out of his internal maze, as it were. I would hope there’s a version where he can regain some semblance of his old self. He has an extreme form of PTSD mixed with all sorts of horrible things. It would be a tall order for him to recuperate from all that, but I’m an optimistic person, so I’d like to think he would manage it somehow!”

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