A disturbing, unsettling roller-coaster ride; 'Prisoners' tells the story of two middle class families; the Dovers and the Birches, whose lives are shattered when both of their young daughters go missing.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a survivalist with a short fuse, and his daughter's disappearance sends him over the edge, accusing mentally challenged young man Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who owned a RV near where the girls vanished.
Detective David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is heading up the investigation, and forced to release Jones when there isn't any conclusive evidence that he had direct involvement with the missing girls.
But Dover takes the law into his own hands, abducting and torturing Jones for information. But Jones is a blank slate, only offering faint clues. Is he hiding something? And why won't he talk?
It is this dilemma that fuels the movie, but it's only scratching the surface. 'Prisoners' is a constantly turning, labyrinthine maze of a plot (mazes being a particular story element). Nothing is as it seems, and as the search for the children continues, the maddening pace and dark foreboding cinematography (by the always stellar Roger A. Deakins) are as torturous to the audience as to the characters, with an unrelenting assault on the psyche.
'Prisoners' was directed by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who has a masterful sense of pacing, making his dark, disturbing thriller share the same headspace of psychological horror movies like 'Zodiac' and claustrophobic thriller 'The Vanishing.'
But 'Prisoners' is also social commentary; cutting to the heart of 21st century America, with a struggling middle class at their wits end, and a continuing dialogue over the use of torture to gain information. It may take place in the withering suburbs, but Keller's inhumane treatment of Jones is clearly a meditation on the C.I.A.'s controversial enhanced interrogation techniques.
'Prisoners' isn't preachy; it puts you in Keller's headspace; if you're wracked with grief, and a never ending panic about the safety of your missing child, rationality takes a second seat to a desperate need for answers, for action, and the agony of law enforcement bureaucracy's seemingly indifferent pace.
Jackman gives the best performance of his career, anguished, loathsome, yet sympathetic. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are deeply affecting as the Birch parents, conflicted to Keller's actions, sacrificing the law for answers. And Gyllenhaal is equally impressive, as a man who wants to find these children desperately, his own self-worth driving him towards a anguished need for answers.
The twist and turns of 'Prisoners' make this an harrowing, whit knuckle ride, but one you can't look away from. And while the plot can sometimes suffer from too many red herrings and convenient reveals, it heads to a place you never fully see coming.
The ending will haunt you, and the images will stay with you. It's an unpleasant reminder of the dark undercurrent of cruelty that has always existed in society, but feels more pronounced than ever.