The less you know about "Prisoners," a labyrinthine mystery about a man searching for his vanished daughter, the better. This much is safe to disclose: Though it's nothing you haven't seen before, it's so artfully made and skillfully executed that you won't care a bit.
The story initially seems like standard stuff: In rural Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving Day, two little girls (Erin Gerasimovich, a Garden City 8-year-old, and Kyla-Drew Simmons) from different families disappear. The Birches, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, stifle their grief while Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigates. The other girl's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), however, fixates on a mentally impaired suspect named Alex (a mesmerizingly blank Paul Dano). When Alex is released for lack of evidence, Dover -- a home repairman and survivalist whose basement is filled with rope and lye -- takes Alex prisoner, giving this movie its shivery title.
That's a daringly dark turn of events for a Hollywood movie, and "Prisoners" doesn't shy away from the possibilities. Dover begins by pummeling Alex's face into a bag of crimson tissue -- "hurt him until he talks," is his motto -- and is soon in full-blown Guantanamo mode, constructing a ghastly torture-chamber for his victim. Never mind that Alex may be innocent. Dover is the kind of man who is absolutely, and perhaps tragically, sure of himself.
This is serious, well-crafted entertainment in the vein of moody procedurals like David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs" (both probable influences here). Jackman and Gyllenhaal, as men of bottled rage and explosive violence, turn in electric performances, while director Denis Villeneuve (2010's excellent "Incendies") creates an air of almost unbearable intensity. The chilly but evocative cinematography is by Roger A. Deakins ("No Country for Old Men").
The political subtext gives "Prisoners" an added resonance, but that shouldn't be overemphasized. The script, by Aaron Guzikowski, throws in plenty of serial-killer chestnuts -- childlike drawings, occult iconography, a depraved priest -- which is to say that "Prisoners" is still just a movie. If only all movies were made this well.
PLOT The father of a missing daughter takes matters into his own hands.
CAST Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Erin Gerasimovich
BOTTOM LINE Sharp performances and a pervasive air of intensity turn this kidnapping tale into something finer and more artful. Tense, gripping and daringly dark.