Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a rugged outdoorsman and a family man with deep roots in rural Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), are raising their children, 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and teenager Ralph (Dylan Minnette), in the tiny town of Dover, an idyllic oasis far removed from the problems of big cities.
It is Thanksgiving morning, and Keller has decided his son is ready to shoot his first deer, a rite-of-passage he’d shared with his own father upon coming-of-age a generation earlier. And after a tableau with Christian symbolism represented by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a cross dangling from their pickup truck’s rearview mirror, we find the two deep in the woods where the boy bags his first buck.
“Be ready,” Keller ominously advises Ralph on the return trip, not because he has a premonition about any impending disaster, but because of the sense of paranoia he has cultivated over the years as a survivalist. Still, their basement, that is stocked with provisions, would prove to be of no use in the calamity that was about to unfold later that day.
The Dovers go to the home of their neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), who have two children around the same age as the Dovers. However, after enjoying a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, the youngsters Anna and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) vanish without a trace while playing outside.
The only lead is a suspicious RV parked down the street which the police trace to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a local resident who is mentally-challenged and presumably incapable of abducting the children. With no other clues to follow, the investigating officer (Jake Gyllenhaal) puts the case on a back burner, much to the chagrin of the missing girls’ anguished parents.
Since time is of the essence, it is no surprise when a desperate Keller takes the law into his own hands, and his manic behavior is in sharp contrast to the measured approach of Detective Loki. Will the frustrated father or the laid-back cop solve the case first, or will they join forces and pool their resources? Will Anna and Joy be rescued alive, or found too late to save them? Or will the abduction simply be unsolved.
That is the mystery at the heart of Prisoners, a mesmerizing, multi-layered masterpiece brilliantly directed by Dennis Villeneuve. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski deserves equal credit for the film’s intricately plotted script which slowly ratchets up the tension in a compelling fashion that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The movie is a compelling study of the emotional toll exacted by a kidnapping on the psyche of both lawmen and the victims’ loved ones.
Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity and disturbing violence. Running time: 153 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.