Hollywood thrives on the action movie where someone takes the law into their own hands to do what the authorities can't -- especially if the vigilante is protecting their family.  But what if that happened in the real world?  What if doing what you thought was necessary turned the would-be hero into a monster?  This is the dilemma of Prisoners, a drama where the lines between right and wrong are very blurry.

Kelly Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a family man, religious person, and survivalist who believes the best lesson from his father is "be ready."  Unfortunately, he can't be prepared what happens on Thanksgiving: During a dinner with their friends the Birches, the families' young daughters Anna and Hope walk back to the Dover house -- and vanish.  Suspicion falls on Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a weird man whose RV had been parked outside and which the kids had been playing on earlier.  But Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhall) thinks Alex is innocent, since he has the I.Q. of a ten year old, and since his RV has no evidence the girls were in there.

That's not good enough for Kelly.  When he confronts Alex as the police are releasing him, Kelly thinks Alex says something incriminating.  So while his wife Grace (Maria Bello) convinced herself Anna will come back any minute and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) put their faith in the police, Kelly kidnaps Alex, torturing him until he gives up Anna's location.  Meanwhile Detective Loki follows a bizarre string of clues, from a mysterious maze symbol to a priest with an adult's dead body in his basement.
Prisoners is a relentless, grim combination of mystery, thriller, and examination of whether the ends justify the means.  Instead of a hero, Hugh Jackman turns Kelly into a desperate man, someone so desperate to get his daughter back he may be deceiving himself just to believe he knowing who's responsible.  He rationalizes his brutality by telling Alex "You did this to yourself" while turning him into a  bloody horror of a human.  Jackman is terrific, transforming what would normally be a one-note hero into a determined, desperate man willing to abandon his humanity (and ignore his family) to do what he thinks is right.  Howard and Davis are excellent as the parents torn between wanting to support Kelly in finding out what happened to their daughter, and still being able to ask "What if you're wrong?"  Gyllenhall is good as the relentless detective, and Dano is effectively creepy as Alex, someone who seems pathetic and small, but with enough flashes of cruelty and violence to make it seem plausible he is involved in the kids' disappearance.

Prisoners manages to elevate the discussion about torture by melding it with a police procedural and some very strong performances.  This isn't an easy movie to sit through (especially when we see the results of torture) but it is very powerful and very well done.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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