Part emotional drama, part mystery thriller and part morality tale, "Prisoners" grabs you by the guts and doesn't let go for two-and-a-half hours.
Hugh Jackman ("The Wolverine") stars as Keller Dover, the father of one of two young girls who disappear from their neighborhood on Thanksgiving. The mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano, "Cowboys & Aliens") is quickly identified as a suspect and taken in by police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, "End of Watch"). But when the police don't have the evidence to hold the young man, Keller's frustration grows until he takes matters into his own hands.
We're used to seeing Jackman deal with anger by popping adamantium claws out of each hand and tearing into bad guys. As Keller, a man who puts a great deal of stock in self-reliance and protecting his family, his rage boils inwardly, with no avenue of release at first. The grief and sorrow the families feel is wrenching, as demonstrated not only by Jackman but also Maria Bello ("Prime Suspect") as his wife Grace and Terrence Howard ("Iron Man") and Viola Davis ("The Help") as the parents of the other missing girl.
The added star power and gravitas provided by Howard and Davis is reduced somewhat by their limited roles, but they're part of an excellent ensemble that also includes Oscar-winner Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") as Alex's aunt and the lesser-known David Dastmalchian ("The Employer") in a particularly unsettling role.
The movie turns even darker as Keller becomes convinced that Alex knows more than the police think. And it's very unclear if he really does or if Keller just wants it to be true. When Keller takes the boy captive with plans to "hurt him until he talks," you're both horrified at the lengths to which he's willing to go and understanding of his motivation and actions, abhorrent as they are.
None of these characters are flawless heroes, their actions undermined by fear, grief, anger, desperation and trauma. Gyllenhaal's Loki is kind of unlikable at first, with his seeming inability to empathize with the families. But his connection to the case grows stronger as answers elude him.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Rated: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Some elements of the story may not hold up on second viewing, as certain developments seem a little too convenient and obvious clues are missed. These things happen to make the story fit together, and the relentless pace and tone of the movie cover any problems there.
That pace and tone also had me shifting uncomfortably in my seat at times and even talking to the screen like one would to a character about to do something stupid in a horror movie. In this case, I guess I was asking writer Aaron Guzikowski and director Denis Villeneuve to have some mercy on these characters.
"Prisoners" is in no way an easygoing movie experience, but the emotional story, powerful performances and taut atmosphere make it an impressive and memorable one.