“Prisoners” is a mystery told with such skill that just when you think you've figured it out, it finds new blind alleys to visit.
Well-cast and wonderfully acted, it's a child kidnapping thriller with sorrow, intrigue, psychology and just enough urgency to suck us in. Then it almost outsmarts itself with a draggy, “Let's explain it all” third act that undercuts the big theme it wants us to ponder.
The gray skies of a Pennsylvania winter set the tone. The Dovers and the Birches are friends and neighbors. Remodeling contractor Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a man's man, something of a survivalist, teaching his son Ralph to hunt and “be ready” in case things get hairy. With his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), they're raising a teen (Dylan Minnette) and a tyke, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), in their middle-class subdivision.
The Birches (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) have the Dovers over for Thanksgiving, so that tiny Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) can play with her best pal, Anna.
The little girls are young and trusting and prone to not see the risks in playing on that strange, ratty old RV parked down the street. They disappear, and as their mothers stumble into shock, and the men hurl themselves into a frantic search, a loner police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes charge of the case.
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) give each major character moments of pain, grief and rage.
But despite the occasional chase or chilling moment, “Prisoners” loses urgency as it drags on.
“Prisoners” will keep you guessing. It's just too bad that the last 30 minutes make us feel like the prisoners.
— Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services