A dazzling array of A-list talent in front of and behind the camera boosts expectations that Denis Villeneuve's crime thriller "Prisoners" will deliver the goods. But actors -- including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano -- cannot elevate the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") into a work of moral complexity and white-knuckle tension.
The saying "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage" almost always holds true. And in this case, the Canadian director of the art-house hit "Incendies" helms a revenge drama characterized by the familiar tropes and twists of a television police procedural.
Kidnapped children, devastated and frantic parents, a cool-headed detective and creepy suspects are core conventions. Keller Dover (Jackman) believes in praying for the best and preparing for the worst. Living in a sleepy Pennsylvania town, the loving father trains his family in survival skills. Dover assures his wife (Bello), teenage son (Dylan Minnette) and daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) that he can protect them from anything. One fateful Thanksgiving proves him wrong.
The icy blues of the stark landscape captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men") dominate the film's palette, visually expressing the horrifying chill that will soon fill the lives of the Dovers and the neighborhood friends (Howard and Davis) with whom they spend Thanksgiving. Their two young daughters (Gerasimovich and Zoe Borde) go outside and disappear.
Rescuing the girls, while days tick by on the calendar, drives the plot. The capable Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) heads a methodical investigation that frustrates and pushes Dover over the edge. A suspicious van driven by loner Alex Jones (Paul Dano) had been spotted in the neighborhood. Although taken into police custody, Jones is released for lack of evidence. Two unsettling incidents between the increasingly volatile Dover and the mentally impaired Jones lead to the abduction and violent interrogation of the suspect.
Are vigilante actions justifiable? Is it moral for an emotionally tortured person to cross the line and become a torturer? What about the complicity of others? And what if the suspect is innocent? The film promisingly raises provocative issues but fails to develop them in a meaningful way.
To Villeneuve's credit, he does not rush the pace of the drama, which Jackman and Gyllenhaal shoulder. Whereas Jackman transforms from a good Christian family man into a raging Wolverine, Gyllenhaal's inner emotions subtly surface through a nervous tic. Howard's character is woefully underwritten, and only the suspect's aunt (Melissa Leo) emerges as a confident female. All the actors do an exceptional job with the material given to them.
Ultimately, the film becomes a prisoner of the screenplay -- locked into muddled messages and plot contrivances telegraphed to the media-literate viewer -- with a sentence that runs much too long.