In "Prisoners," Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) lives by the motto, "Pray for the best, prepare for the worst."
He believes in being ready for any disaster and has survivalist supplies for his family stockpiled in his basement. But the husband and father of two cannot imagine what the worst will be and how ill-prepared he will be when it ignites rage, fear and desperation.
His daughter and a neighbor girl -- 6 and 7 years old -- vanish on Thanksgiving Day. Older siblings had spotted a strange camper in the neighborhood on an earlier walk with the girls and wonder if the occupant might be responsible for the disappearance.
3.5 stars = Very Good
Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano.
R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
A detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is assigned to the case, and the parents -- Maria Bello is Mr. Jackman's wife, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the parents of the second missing girl -- begin a hellish descent that will make them and others question their belief in God, moral compass and faith in authorities such as the police.
Some of the rituals, such as TV reports, organized searches through the woods with police dogs and candlelight vigils, seem sadly familiar from real-life cases. But when the childlike driver (Paul Dano) of the rusty RV is questioned and released, Keller takes matters into his own hands.
Mr. Jackman's character knows that chances of survival for kidnapped children drop off at a week and fall to almost nothing at a month, so the clock is ticking. He is absolutely convinced that Mr. Dano's enigmatic Alex Jones -- said to have the IQ of a 10-year-old -- knows something, and he will beat it out of him, if necessary.
That puts Franklin Birch (Mr. Howard), a music teacher more soft-spoken and less rough-edged than his pal, in the position of sanctioning the behavior or stopping it and possibly destroying the chance to find his abducted daughter.
"Look, I want my baby back," he tearfully pleads. "I would die for my daughter, but this ain't right. This has to stop."
The women, meanwhile, also cope in different ways. Ms. Bello's Grace Keller medicates herself and loses herself in sleep while Franklin's wife, Nancy (Ms. Davis), lives as if time has stopped with Thanksgiving pie and plates still on the table and in the kitchen, as when the girls went missing.
On the fringes is another woman, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), who opened her home to Alex as a boy and swears he's never been in trouble a day in his life.
"Prisoners," in which virtually every character is a prisoner of circumstance, fear, neuroses or demons, takes twists and turns that even the most astute moviegoer may not see coming.
Just when you think you have it all figured out, it rounds another curve in the maze, a recurring image in the story with themes of religion, violence, vengeance and how those who have been hurt often hurt others.
It seems no coincidence that much of the glass -- windows, storm doors, car windshields, even spectacles -- is rarely clear in this dark, taut thriller. It's fogged, smudged or impenetrable due to gloomy rain or snow, just as the search for the truth seems to be.
"Prisoners," written by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband"), is powered by Mr. Jackman as the panicked, furious father and Mr. Gyllenhaal as the cop who never failed to solve a case and surrenders to his anger and frustration, too.
The story may be a bit too clever, allowing the twists and turns to push the running time to 153 minutes.
But, to its credit and surprise, it establishes the uneasy mood with an opening scene of deer hunting (although set in Pennsylvania, the movie was shot in Georgia) and lassoes the audience, pulling the rope and the puzzle tighter and tighter until the end. And then some.