The horror of child abduction and murder, too disturbing for most people to contemplate for longer than it takes to recoil from a news item about it really happening somewhere, is just another jumping-off point for a crime thriller. It's a hook to explore ethical worldviews, responses and motives of perpetrators, victims and victims' loved ones, a reason to construct an intricately plotted puzzle or indulge in flamboyant sleuthing and exploitation. In Prisoners it's all of these things and a chance to reconcile strong religious faith with torture. In other words you're going to feel kind of icky when this is over.
The bare bones plot: on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving, two neighboring families (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) gather together to celebrate, but before the day is over the youngest daughters of both families go missing. Who's to blame? The mentally ill loner (Paul Dano) who lives alone with his aunt (Melissa Leo)? The creepy guy who hangs out in the children's clothing section of the depressing discount store (David Dastmalchian)? Or someone else? A local cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) works round the clock to piece together the mystery as the hours turn to days with no break in the case, but it's Jackman, as a desperate father who turns amateur detective/vigilante, who really goes off the deep end.
It's an anguished ordeal of a movie, its two and a half hours soaked with freezing rain, anxiety and nods to Silence of The Lambs, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and everything Michael Haneke ever did. It withholds information while it simultaneously drops confusing clues, offers up red herrings and travels down a narrative path troubling both for its ideas about torture as a way of getting accurate information (something Zero Dark Thirty danced around, too) and for its refusal to interrogate the idea that characters of deep religious faith might wholeheartedly employ brutality as a first step toward finding out the truth. The Lord's Prayer is brought out twice at important moments but is seemingly used as nothing more than a reactionary device, one of several references to a conservative brand of theology designed as an easy way for characters to be let off the hook or to explain away random acts of human evil.
It does the movie no favors, especially when otherwise there's a lot here that insists on being seen. It's quiet when other films would fill every square inch of soundtrack with music and noise; it's intentionally long and agonizing, almost daring audiences to bail; it's bone-chillingly atmospheric thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall), who, among his other talents, makes driving in the rain look like the most dangerous thing a person can do to themselves; and its cast is uniformly impressive, especially the mute, disturbed Dano and the glum "bad cop" Gyllenhaal, who effectively turns down the handsome and owns the film with his gaunt, haunted stare. It's nowhere close to a happy time at the movies, nor is it the important statement on the human condition it aspires to be, but its an effectively gruesome mystery that'll make you feel the right kind of cold inside.