The first act of the movie is skillfully set up, and establishes Jackman as a family man with strong ideas about preparation and doing what is necessary. Jackman, Bello, Davis, and Howard are neighbors and parents of two teenagers and two young girls each. An incredibly warm and genial gathering further develops the typical middle-class comforts that both families enjoy, before an ominous shot of the front door heralds the arrival of the main plot: the two young girls have gone missing, last seen going off together to retrieve a whistle.
The rest of the first and second sections of the movie cover the intersection of Detective Loki's (Gyllenhaal) persistent and low-key (get it?? get it????) investigations, and Jackman's character's increasingly desperate acts to find and save his daughter. When he crosses a line, the movie posits hard questions: how justified is it? What sacrifice becomes too great when the reward is your child's life? Why are the police such morons?
The best part about the movie are the main characters' development. Jackman's Keller is capable, competent, and unrelenting. His equivalent is Gyllenhaal's Loki, who understands the rules and plays by them when necessary. As the days pass without any clue about the girls' whereabouts, both men become more and more frustrated, with unexpected results. Keller reminds me of the character played by Brad Pitt in World War Z -- he knows what's at stake, and he will resort to what to him is the most expedient means of achieving the objective. While Keller does get emotional and shouty, it's usually when dealing with the calm Loki, or with [SPOILER ALERT] his prisoner, played by Dano. Dano's character's stubborn silence adds to the mystery: how much does he know? Why won't he talk?
While all the supporting characters are heavy hitters in Hollywood, the story doesn't give them as big a role to play. Howard is clearly the conscience, while Davis' character is more in the moral gray line: willing to overlook circumstances if it helps bring their daughter back. Meanwhile, I found Bello, as Keller's wife, annoying with her debilitating inability to cope, but in retrospect, her very vulnerability is likely a factor in Keller's drive to do whatever it takes to find their daughter.
Prisoners is an enjoyable film. It keeps the tension at a constant simmer, and its characters are believable and relatable. The film would have been better served if the main conflict remained solidly within the Jackman/Dano dynamic, rather than the cliché. Argh.
I apologize for the massive spoiler to the canny moviegoers, but...but...it could have been better. Still, there is much to recommend in this film, so please, give it a chance and go see it.
Now if you'll excuse me, Gronkowski just got a first down and I will be cheering my lungs out while wearing his jersey.