"Prisoners," an entertaining if not always satisfying thriller, pits its protagonists against one another like two scorpions in a jelly jar. Hugh Jackman plays a religious carpenter whose young daughter and a friend go missing on Thanksgiving. Enter Jake Gyllenhaal, a solitary, self-possessed cop whose only lead, initially, is a beat-up RV that'd been seen around the families' neighborhood. The driver of the RV turns out to be a soft-minded weirdo named Alex, played with a spooky vacancy by Paul Dano.
What follows is a case study in what criminologists call tunnel vision, a pitfall of law enforcement in particular and life in general. "Prisoners" outdoes most of its crime-and-consequence cinematic cousins by rotating the dynamic between the cop and the bereaved father by a quarter-turn. Convinced of Alex's guilt and furious at the cops' unwillingness to see the same, Jackman turns vigilante, darkly. Meanwhile Gyllenhaal — a convincing investigator in a role that rhymes with his turn in "Zodiac" — has to worry about the father while running down other leads. As the days flip past, the chance of finding the girls wanes, and both men turn to more extreme measures to ferret out information.
The first hour or so of "Prisoners" gives you the quite enjoyable stress of realizing you're in a story richly conceived and executed. The screenplay is by Aaron Guzikowski, who also wrote the mostly fun 2012 "Contraband," and until the story takes some turns that make you wonder just how intricate the local abduction-and-molestation scene could possibly be, he builds a fantastic little mouse trap, fraught with moral squish.
To this material, director Dennis Villeneuve brings a keen sense of tone to his choice of locations and shots. "Prisoners" avoids revealing much about its geography; filmed in Georgia and set in Pennsylvania, this smallish town could be any in America where people hunt deer in cold weather and watch the Lions play on Thanksgiving, and as such, the movie derives much of its power from its often pedestrian sets. Perhaps its most moving scene comes in a painfully ordinary meeting room inside the police station, where Gyllenhaal must flip a series of photos of bloodied clothes for Jackman to identify. The room could hardly be more plain, and nothing is there to prepare the father for the task at hand, making it a damn effective choice of environs.
At two-and-a-half hours, "Prisoners" has time to pursue real answers to the questions it poses. It also has time to indulge in a couple of WTF twists that seem too indulgent by half. The word that comes to mind is gimmicky, the sort of plot flourishes that mark films that don't have characters this good. Even the secondary roles here — Terrence Howard as the father of the second girl, foremost — are plausible and textured. The tension between Jackman and Gyllenhaal, who are driving at perpendicular purposes for a seemingly common goal, works well. Unlike "Zodiac," though, which was based on real police work and journalism, worlds in which dead ends are often just that, "Prisoners" contrives to connect every stray plot element, every shard of luck and guesswork. This is the domain of clunky TV cop serials more than gritty crime thrillers, and it's where, for all its skill, "Prisoners" misses greatness. The people it puts at the heart of an Amber Alert death race feel real, and you can believe them. The flaw, at the bottom of everything, is that oh-so-impressive mousetrap. Build one too fancy, and we mice start to eye it with suspicion.
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