Parenting involves countless mundane decisions - dozens a day. But as any parent knows, the potential for tragedy stemming from a wrong decision is never far from the surface of the mind. What if they go out and get hit by a car? What if I look away and they drown in the current? What if they get kidnapped?
No wonder the movies get so much mileage out of missing-children tales. But few - very few - handle it with the skill that director Denis Villeneuve and a terrific cast led by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal bring to "Prisoners," a suspense thriller that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Jackman, we all know, is not only talented but so darned likable that it's hard for him to break out of that ever-charming persona. But here, in some of his best work to date, he manages it - and surpasses last year's Oscar-nominated performance in "Les Miserables" - as a grief-stricken, panicked father who succumbs to his basest impulses in a race to find his young daughter's captors.
And Gyllenhaal, in a less flashy but just as compelling performance, brings new depth to the well-worn role of brooding, driven detective. To the film's credit, we don't get much backstory on this character. A few small hints are all we need; the actor's textured performance does the rest.
Jackman is Keller Dover, a carpenter in a Pennsylvania town, and a survivalist who believes diligent preparation is the key to avoiding disaster. His basement is packed with supplies. But that won't help him on the cold and gray Thanksgiving evening when his young daughter and her friend go missing.
It's one of those quick parenting decisions - OK girls, you can go outside. Later, when no one can find them, mild concern on the part of two happy families celebrating the holiday escalates into fear, then full-blown panic, as an older sibling recalls that an RV had been parked, creepily, on the street, and there was someone inside.
What ensues is two and a half hours of unrelenting tension, punctuated by clever twists in Aaron Guzikowski's first-rate script. Many movies this long don't earn their length; here, there's little flab.
It turns out the RV belongs to a troubled young man, Alex, with the IQ of a 10-year-old (an effective Paul Dano, making do with hardly any lines). Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) arrests him, but in the absence of evidence, can't keep him beyond 48 hours.
That's simply untenable for Dover, who takes matters in his own hands - and in a gruesome way, capturing and torturing Alex to the horror of Dover's good friend, Franklin (a sensitive and pained Terrence Howard), father of the other missing girl.
As Dover and Detective Loki pursue their separate tracks, both know the odds of a happy outcome are fast dwindling. Meanwhile, two mothers grieve in their own way. Dover's wife Grace (an affecting Maria Bello) retreats into a medicated sleep; Nancy (Viola Davis, moving as ever) tries a more pragmatic approach. A third mother figure rounding out the cast is Alex's oddball elderly aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo, suitably quirky.)
In less talented hands, the story could lapse into the maudlin. But Villeneuve, director of the Oscar-nominated "Incendies," seems to know just how far to go; only one moment feels less than authentic, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.
Kudos to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose evocation of a chilly late fall in Pennsylvania will leave you instinctively searching for a blanket.
Even the moody music by Icelandic composer Johan Johannsson will make you shiver. Just try getting it out of your head as you leave the theater.
"Prisoners," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout." Running time: 153 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.