THE DOVERS and the Birches are friends and neighbors—they spend Thanksgiving Day together, but by nightfall the two families are sharing the same waking nightmare. The young daughters of each family have disappeared into thin air, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't find any evidence to hold the best suspect: Alex Jones, the creepy guy with the RV who lurks around the neighborhood (creepy, lurking Paul Dano).
As the case stagnates and the trail goes cold, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) spiral into paranoia, misery, and painkillers; Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) don't fare much better. Keller eventually takes matters into his own hands, capturing and torturing Alex Jones in a desperate attempt to find out where the girls are.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), Prisoners is both a squick-out thriller and a dark, brooding drama about the wages of sin. It's relentlessly heavy, but the marriage works: Despite being about half an hour too long, Prisoners is tense and effective, conjuring up nail-biting suspense in the manner of The Silence of the Lambs while offering cinematic brain-meat to chew on. Even the look of the film is oppressively fascinating, as cinematographer Roger Deakins' camera pries into the dripping thickets of rain-soaked rural Pennsylvania.
To be certain, this is a big-budget prestige picture, but it's a smart and affecting one. Jackman gets the flashiest scenes—and he's very good—but this is Gyllenhaal's movie, held together by Loki's quiet, coiled determination. David Fincher's Zodiac leaps to mind, of course (Loki sports tattoos of the zodiacal signs, surely a blatant shoutout). The thriller careens through some worthy twists and turns, and once the ride is over, there's still plenty to sort out.