Deja views of ‘A Single Shot’ and ‘Prisoners’

“A Single Shot.”
Bob Akester/Tribeca Film
“A Single Shot.”

Critics always make comparisons between movies, spotting patterns and similarities. Often these observations are spurious, but in the case of two movies that opened recently, David M. Rosenthal’s “A Single Shot” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners,” the resemblances beg for further consideration.

In general, the two films tell similar stories. In “Single Shot” (pictured), a father commits a morally dubious act and as a result his wife and child are put in danger. In “Prisoners,” a child is put in danger and as a result the father commits a morally dubious act. But many films follow comparable patterns in their themes and premises – the difference with these two is that the beginning and end of each movie are almost exactly the same.

“Single Shot” opens in a foggy, wintry forest with stark, towering pines, where the father, John Moon (Sam Rockwell), a backwoods recluse, is lining up a shot at a deer. In “Prisoners,” in a virtually identical setting, the father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a survivalist with a basement full of canned goods and ammo, watches while his son takes aim at a deer.


A mere coincidence? Perhaps. But then there are the endings of each film, which, though not as closely related as the beginnings, involve uncanny parallels. At the risk of spoilers, in both “Single Shot” and “Prisoners” characters end up – because of their own morally ambiguous machinations – in a deep pit, struggling, in vain, to escape.

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This is too much of a parallel for a critic to resist inflating into possibly overwrought interpretations. Assuming that the people who made each film did not know anything about the other’s project, perhaps they are similar because they tap into a common anxiety felt by the culture at large: like fear of threats to our domestic security, coupled with unease about whether we are in some part responsible for these threats (in the case of “Single Shot”). And guilt about the things we think we must do to ensure our safety (in “Prisoners” the stricken father employs “enhanced interrogation” techniques to save his daughter). Assuming that the filmmakers knew nothing about each others’ projects, this might be a case in which the mirror of the screen reveals more about ourselves than we are otherwise willing to face.

Or, then again, maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Peter Keough can be reached at