PRISONERS is one of the best films I’ve seen at the movies in weeks. It pops like a kernel in a myriad ways–full of nooks and crannies, threatening & thrilling, sad & shocking, and just plain entertaining. I followed this thriller about two little girls who disappear on Thanksgiving Day– right down a very dark rabbit hole, wherever this cast (superb), director (Denis Villeneuve), and intricately plotted storyline took me. I was gripped from the first shot taken at the edge of the woods, to the final riveting closeup on a detective’s eyes.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki who’s alone in a diner on Thanksgiving. He is called in to investigate as two frantic families search for their daughters who have suddenly vanished after the holiday dinner. Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello play one set of parents, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis their neighbors are the other set of distraught parents. The setting is bleak– rain and snow throughout, and there’s one clue– an RV the girls were seen playing around  before disappearing. Its driver? A creepy young man (Paul Dano) with the mental acuity of a 10 year-old who says he knows nothing. That’s it.

What unfolds is a dark, dismal tale of guilt and culpability. There are hints of two other superb thrillers– THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and ZODIAC (in which Gyllenhaal is on the trail of a serial killer; PRISONERS references that film with a brief shot of zodiac signs tattooed on Det.Loki’s knuckles.) The title PRISONERS gradually takes on its full import: there are many ways to be imprisoned, not just literally in the here and now, but also through links to the past–our own and other people’s– which connect and imprison us in a web of communal dysfunction. The movie asks how the chain will be broken and by whom.

Gyllenhaal here appears even more haunted and disturbed than he did in ZODIAC. We know nothing about him, except that he has never lost a case. He is relentless, observant, hyper-focused, patient, still. He is our guide and we are drawn in by the intensity of his performance.

By contrast, Hugh Jackman is outwardly jacked to the max as Keller Dover; that his first name is the same as the last name of the father “Joe Keller” in Arthur Miller’s masterpiece of shared guilt ALL MY SONS– is revealing. How far will Keller Dover go to protect his family? The opening scene gives you a clue. Terrence Howard as Keller’s more even-tempered neighbor and Viola Davis as his wife, twist somewhat more uncomfortably on the tenterhooks of this moral dilemma. Maria Bello heartbreaking as Keller’s wife, curls up and retreats.

The suspense NEVER flags; the plot keeps turning on itself, again and again, and the story evolves outwardly as much as inwardly until it coils up on a tight shot of Gyllenhaal’s unflinching eyes. It’s one of the best last shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. PRISONERS is easily one of the year’s most compelling films.