The moody “Prisoners” is full of twists, but what gets twisted most is the viewers’ perceptions as the movie slides from grounded psychological drama to police procedural to wigged-out psycho-killer thriller.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) makes his English-language debut with a brooding tale that starts quite normally in a middle-class Pennsylvania neighborhood. Two families, the Birches and the Dovers, gather for Thanksgiving dinner. But after dinner, the Dovers’ 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and the Birches’ little girl, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), go missing.
Anna’s father, Keller (Hugh Jackman), and the Birches, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), start searching the neighborhood while Anna’s mother, Grace (Maria Bello), waits at home. When Anna’s older brother, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), mentions a creepy-looking RV that was parked down the street, Keller calls 911.
Soon half the police force is in the search, and the suspicious RV is found at a rest stop. Its driver is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), an adult with the IQ of a 10-year-old. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), leading the investigation, interrogates Alex for hours, but can find no evidence linking him to the girls’ disappearance. Loki must release Alex to the custody of his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo), over Keller’s urgent pleas to keep him locked up.
At this point, Aaron Guzikowski’s knotted script takes the first of many strange turns, blurring the line between good intent and bad behavior.
Jackman is forceful as the driven father who becomes the story’s pivot point, taking the law into his own hands while urging Loki to look harder for the missing girls. It’s a performance that Jackman lets lapse into fulminating anger a bit too often, but his game rises when paired opposite the quietly intense Gyllenhaal. Jackman also pairs up well opposite Howard, Dano and Leo at various points in the story, all to riveting effect.
Villeneuve sets a dark, foreboding tone, aided by evocative cinematography by the great Roger A. Deakins (“Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men”), which holds the movie together even when the plot goes a bit loopy in the finale. Before that, though, “Prisoners” holds us spellbound in its tense grip.
Two girls go missing, and one father goes over the edge, in this brooding crime drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Running time • 153 minutes.