A devastating psychological thriller, Prisoners pulls us deep into our worst fear: the Amber Alert. Then it holds us under.
When two girls vanish off the meandering streets of what is ostensibly Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, it sets off a dismaying, ever darker chain of events.
We've become all too familiar with the alarming rituals associated with child abductions: the lines of police and volunteers walking the fields and woods, searching for bodies; the candlelight vigils; the TV news trucks besieging the family's house; the rousting of all the registered sex offenders in the immediate area.
Both sets of parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) lose it, but Jackman (the Aussie is slightly over-the-top as a blue-collar American) really snaps.
He becomes convinced that a developmentally disabled suspect (Paul Dano) took his daughter, even more so after the local police are forced to release Dano for lack of evidence.
Jackman is driven by something far more powerful than proof: suspicion. This is where Prisoners really starts to tear you up. Because while you completely understand the motives driving this distraught dad, you cannot live with the results.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve pulls off a dastardly trick here: manipulating the moviegoer to feel complicit and guilty about Jackman's vigilante rampage. You're pummeled with the keen, dehumanizing anguish of the perpetrator as well as the terror of his victim.
It grows so quiet during this powerful, almost punishing film that you become intensely aware of the slightest tics in the soundtrack. The theater becomes a prison.
But Villeneuve has something devilish up his sleeve. Prisoners makes a late and unexpected turn into a mystery that is quite suspenseful.
It takes a sly cast to spring this trap door. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as the baleful, blinking detective who coldly assesses what everyone involved in the case is telling him - and what they aren't.
Len Cariou and Melissa Leo shine in very unflattering roles, he as an alcoholic priest, she as Dano's dowdy caretaker aunt.
Consider carefully before going to see Prisoners. It's a striking film, but the emotional toll it exacts is exorbitant.
Prisoners *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. With Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Melissa Leo. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 26 mins.
Parent's guide: R (disturbing violence, profanity)
Playing at: area theaters