There are certain kinds of material that, especially if not having the advantage of being "based on a true story," always runs the risk of veering into melodrama. Stalkers, serial killers, and stories of children being kidnapped and parents enacting revenge are the kinds of topics that Lifetime movies are often based on, and it takes a good director who can elevate this kind of material into gripping suspense without camp seeping in. That's essentially what French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve tries to do with Prisoners, and he only occasionally succeeds.
The movie starts off on a normal Thanksgiving in dreary Pennsylvania, with one family joining another for dinner, as the kids play with each other outside. The families are made up of good actors, with Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello as one couple, and Terence Howard and Viola Davis as the other. All of them give convincing portraits of ordinary people, Jackman especially in a role that's different from any other he's ever played- Keller Dover is an angry, conservative, doomsday preparer who already seems on edge as the holiday approaches. But things take a turn for the worse when the 6-year-old daughters of both couples disappear after wandering outside, and seem to have been snatched by the creepy guy in a nearby RV where they were playing (he's Paul Dano of course, who's now been completely typecast as "the creep" in every movie he appears in). A manhunt goes into effect, and police Detective Loki is called in, an interestingly tattooed expert who happens to have solved every case he's investigated (played very well by Jake Gyllenhaal).
This is a long movie, and we spend a lot of time following Keller's continual crisis and descent into madness (although it's not much of a descent, seeing as the guy was already stacking bags of lye in his basement), which gives Hugh Jackman a chance to go big with the fury and emotion, which he does. And he does it well, coming off as a genuinely scary and threatening guy when he kidnaps Dano's character and starts torturing him for days, convinced he's the culprit despite no evidence and that he'll eventually talk. Gyllenhaal is especially good as the conflicted cop, and the actor seems to have taken on certain mannerisms and tics that suggest a more interesting backstory than what's explained about Loki (which is nothing), so all credit for that goes directly to him. But the movie does sink into that pulp crime area despite Villenuve's attempt to restrain the material with a constantly gray and/or rainy Pennsylvania setting and methodical procedural storytelling. This is an attempt to make a David Fincher movie without David Fincher behind the camera and it shows. The last half hour or so especially veers off into silliness, with Melissa Leo in overly hammy mode as the creepy aunt of Paul Dano, and some extremely convenient coincidences take place in order for everything to wrap up just right.
As a routine thriller this is better than your average offering, and it may be worth seeing if you're a fan of the actors, but the self-seriousnesss reveals itself as slightly pretentious, especially as it approaches the climactic third act and the cliches start piling up. I wasn't fooled.