A triumph of intelligent acting and astute filmmaking, "Prisoners" is a harrowing, adult drama that's filled with horror and heartache, yet leavened with hope.
When carpenter/handyman Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his son (Dylan Minnette) deer hunting, it's just part of the teenager's survivalist training: "Be ready" is Keller's credo. But nothing could prepare him for the events of a bitterly cold Thanksgiving afternoon in suburban Pennsylvania. While Keller and his wife (Maria Bello), son and daughter are sharing Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), 6-year-old Anna Dover (Anna Gerasimovich) and 7-year-old Joy Birch (Kyula-Drew Simmons) disappear without a trace. Their only lead is a battered RV camper that was parked on the street earlier in the day. Heading the investigation is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who arrests its creepy driver, mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but can find no physical evidence of the missing girls' abduction. Realizing that the longer it takes to find the youngsters, the less likely it is that they'll be alive, enraged Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.
Holding the screen with volcanic force, Jackman's passionate performance delves deeper and deeper into a father's desperation and panic, while Gyllenhaal inhabits his mysteriously reserved, yet persistent character with nuanced, methodical precision. Skillfully helmed by Denis Villenueve, a sophisticated French-Canadian director best known for his Oscar-nominated "Incendies" (2010), and hauntingly photographed by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, it's based on a compelling, original screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") that's filled with unexpected twists and trapped, multi-dimensional characters. In addition, it's studded with accomplished supporting performances by Davis, Bello, Howard, Dano, Melissa Leo and Len Cariou. Despite an overly long running time (a sprawling 153 minutes), even the moody score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson strikes just the right resonance of dread.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Prisoners" is an unflinching, intense 9 -- an intricate thriller evoking complex emotional conflict, moral ambiguity and sustained psychological suspense.