** SPOILERS **
Prisoners is a taut, harrowing expertly-made thriller about child abduction as well as a war of glowering between stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. As a temperamental survivalist and blue collar father of two, Jackman's glower is permanently activated when his precocious young daughter, along with the young daughter of his kindly neighbor Terrence Howard, are abducted on Thanksgiving. All signs point to an RV parked in their neighborhood owned by Paul Dano, a mentally handicapped suspect whom Jackman is convinced kidnapped his daughter. Matching Jackman glower for glower is detective Gyllenhaal, the twitchy and constantly blinking lonesome investigator on the case.
Without any evidence to convict Dano, Jackman, with reluctant help from Howard, takes justice into his own hands by abducting and torturing Dano to force him to reveal where their daughters are. As Jackman compromises his soul and humanity by brutalizing Dano but finding dead ends, Gyllenhaal follows up leads on local sex offenders, delving into dank, cavernous basements and uncovering their grim secrets which may or may not be related to a 30 year old series of child abductions. And what does this all have to do with Dano's aunt Melissa Leo, lurking on the fringes of the investigation, or with a mysterious hooded man who commits breaking and entry in Jackman and Howard's homes? The clues and various threads converge nicely as the answers to the crime are slowly discovered, individually and through very different methods, by Jackman and Gyllenhaal.
Prisoners plays hard but fair with the cost Jackman's actions towards Dano weigh on his soul; there are conscious echoes of Jackman's brutality as Wolverine as well has the penitence of Jean Valjean. Prisoners' weakness lays in the fuzzy relationship between Jackman and his wife Maria Bello, who starts off as perfectly normal but then is drugged out on sleeping pills and antidepressants for most of the movie. Jackman's son Dylan Minnette also spends most of the movie in his bedroom waiting for the increasingly alcoholic Jackman to occasionally yell at him. For her part, Leo is pretty much Auntie Exposition, filling in plot points by speechifying every time she's in a scene. It's also alarming just how many people keep disappearing in this small town.
Through Jackman's extreme actions in becoming arguably a worse person than the movie reveals Dano to be, Prisoners asks what sins a father is willing to commit to find his missing daughter, and then weighs in with punishment for those sins. Ultimately, Jackman's glower power winds him in a hole he can't dig himself out of, and it's Gyllenhaal's equally relentless but measured glowering that proves to be everyone's salvation.