Prisoners is a con job.
It's a gloomy, rumbling torture chamber.
The film's best quality - mostly created by the masterly cinematographer Roger Deakins -is the atmosphere.
But style isn't enough. The streaked, blurry, wet windows can't hide the contrivance behind them.
For a while, Prisoners may be engrossing, with themes that are worth penetrating, but it then splays itself all over the place. It loses focus and commitment.
Even early on, Prisoners may seem heavy-handed with a prayer juxtaposed to hunting. Subtle it's not.
There's dissonance from the start.
Then a Thanksgiving dinner is shared by two families. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two children visit the home of Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) and their two children.
A wife is named Grace and a daughter is named Joy. Oh, boy.
The Thanksgiving gathering is a clumsy scene. It has literal dissonance when Franklin badly plays the Star Spangled Banner on his trumpet.
After dinner the young daughters from both families vanish. As it becomes apparent that they were kidnapped and perhaps killed, the tension escalates.
Alex Jones (Paul Dano), an adult with a 10-year old's mentality, is the prime suspect. He becomes the object of Keller's fury, which leads to sadistic torture.
Detective Loki (Jake Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to solve the case and save the young girls. But everything around him is in dangerous flux and confusion.
It all careens into mind-numbing nonsense.
Prisoners is like a hyper kid got on an elevator and pushed all the buttons, so that it stopped at every floor. The doors open and close, open and close.
A movie's ending is crucial. Often the ending decides how effective the movie is going to be. An effective ending reverberates back through the film. An ineffective ending doesn't.
Prisoners has three or four endings, each more nonsensical than the previous one. The film, which had controlled its imbalance, careens into silliness.
The acting is inchoate. See Hugh Jackman rave, see Jake Jake Gyllenhaal blink, see Maria Bello weep awkwardly, see Melissa Leo frown, see Paul Dano wince, and see Terrence Howard look askance.
Talented actors give gimmicky performances. Is blinking really characterization?
The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski becomes prisoner of the kitchen sink. Director Denis Villeneuve's willingness to compromise vision for saggy effects is disconcerting.
Prisoners turns out to be a torture tease.