On Thanksgiving, two young girls wander away from the celebration and disappear. The lives of their parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) immediately become a waking nightmare of public speculation, relentless search parties, vigils, and self-medicating. Jackman stars here as Keller Dover, a small town dad like an unhappy medium between Jean Valjean and Wolverine -- pissed off, driven, and with no time for the law. In the hours following the disappearance, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a mentally deficient man (Paul Dano) into custody, only to release him when his limited abilities rule him out as a suspect. Keller, though, is convinced of his guilt and - in a stroke of vigilantism as morally debatable as it is cathartic - takes justice into his own hands. From there, the premises diverge, morph, and throw the initial setup off balance. Gyllenhaal and Jackman rage against their own limitations and, occasionally, at each other in ways that remind you how powerful the right role can be for the right actor. Each is perfectly cast and compelling, but just when you think Prisoners could easily transform into a character-driven domestic drama focused on the aftermath of a small town tragedy, it does anything but.
Prisoners is something like a horror film mashed up with a police procedural, a story interested in building characters and placing them both on the same team and at impossible odds. A lot of people do a lot of questionable, criminal things in this film, and the film seems to expand and contract away from the central tragedy in impossibly smart, fluid ways that call everything about the individuals, the situation, and - at times- the town itself into question. Villeneuve dabbles with exploitation and violence here, moving Keller and the other parents quickly away from the ethical limitations of sanity and calling into question the realistic lengths desperate, deeply wronged people will go to. There's some serious Lady Vengeance happening for a few scenes here, and the viewer is forced to feel Keller's frustrations, to side with him as he repeatedly partakes in otherwise reprehensible behavior. It's an intriguing, uncomfortable effect, and one Jackman and Villeneuve (with Davis and Howard, on occasion) manages to make work to the film's advantage. The ground here is never solid, and the viewer is pulled between fascinating compulsions in the race to locate the missing girls. Do we side with the law? Or do we want the vigilante to deliver his own brand of justice? Your own answer may surprise you.