The movie's not exactly subtle, but it is refreshingly deliberate and well-paced in unraveling its dire situation.
The two little girls disappear on Thanksgiving, in a blandly ordinary neighborhood, and the search unfolds over the next few days.
A rather eccentric detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) uncovers a bizarre collection of clues, but no actual kidnapper. The prime suspect, a developmentally disabled man (Paul Dano), is released for lack of evidence.
This infuriates the father (Hugh Jackman) of one of the missing kids, and he decides to take the investigation into his own hands.
Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski puts the weight on Jackman's character, which unfortunately makes the three other parents -- played by the excellent Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis -- less integral to the story.
The vigilante-justice angle is not quite as thought-provoking as the moviemakers seem to think it is, but the overall puzzle, and the dank atmosphere (shot in Georgia), provides many moments of anxiety.
Viewers may get a flashback or two to "Zodiac," as once again Jake Gyllenhaal is perpetually exploring dark basements that might hold some terrible clue.
Gyllenhaal turns in a busy performance (he has given his character a facial tic), but his tendency to remain silent during emotionally charged scenes is effective. Jackman plays his role straight on, as always, and we have little problem believing this guy exists.
Melissa Leo, the Oscar-winner for "The Fighter," does fine-tuned work as Dano's aunt.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who steered the impossibly overwrought "Incendies" to a foreign-language film Oscar nomination a few years ago, is more in control of the frequently lurid material here. Because the film moves along with a steady tread, you might not notice how certain key moments are left offscreen -- an effective way of propelling the plot.
The first-class cinematographer, Roger Deakins, captures the way an apparently civilized American town might have strange little pockets where people could simply disappear off the grid. No wonder the basements are places of edgy expectation -- in "Prisoners," you never know what you might find there.
"Prisoners" (3 stars)
A suspenseful search for two missing children, during which the investigation by an eccentric detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is complicated by a vigilante-minded father (Hugh Jackman). Director Denis Villeneuve stays in control of some fairly lurid material, to the point that every time somebody steps down into a basement, you expect the worst.
Rated: R for violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Varsity, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.
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