How weighed down with solemnity is “Prisoners”? Check the title, which refers not only to the two missing girls that set the plot in motion, or the suspect that one victim’s father has chained to a sink. It takes in all of the characters — the frenzied parents, the haunted detective, the shattered young men who may or may not have anything to do with the crime — and, by extension, it includes each of us as well, prisoners to our passions and blind to the big picture.
That sounds like an awful lot for a thriller to carry, and at 2½ hours, “Prisoners” often groans under the load of its own importance. But Denis Villeneuve’s film — the Canadian director’s first feature since 2010’s Oscar-nominated “Incendies” — is as gripping as it is grueling, with performances that swing for the fences and a central mystery that seems an unresolvable tangle of knots until those knots come undone in a somewhat forced final act. Villeneuve is aiming for the brass ring of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Zodiac” — films that eclipse their genre to touch on larger matters — and he comes pretty close. “Prisoners” carries its weight.
It also taps into every parent’s worst nightmare: two little girls (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) who vanish from a rural Pennsylvania street while their respective parents are socializing on a rainy Thanksgiving. A detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is brought in, and the more volatile of the fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) — a macho carpenter with survivalist tendencies — urges the cops to find a mysterious RV seen cruising the area earlier. Taken into custody, the driver of the RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), proves to be a shell-shocked young man with the mental faculties of a 10-year-old.
Finding no link to the still-missing girls, the police return Alex to the care of his aunt (Melissa Leo), at which point Dover takes matters into his own hands. The trailers for “Prisoners” make the film look like a social-message drama — Vigilante Justice Is Bad — but the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (a son of Brockton who wrote the recent “Contraband”) deals with this twist early. Of course it’s bad, but how bad, and what does it do to you? The subject here is pressure: How much will it take for Alex to talk, for Loki to solve the crime, for Keller to go nuclear? The clouds bear down (if there’s a ray of sunshine in this movie, I don’t remember seeing it), the days tick by, and the girls’ chances of being found alive diminish. The entire film functions as a tightening tourniquet.
How the characters respond defines who they are. Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), takes to her bed and is rarely seen for the rest of the film. The other two parents, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), split the difference: When they see what their friend has done, one of them falls apart and the other mans up. (And which one’s the “right” one? Discuss.) Jackman gives off sulfurous fumes of righteousness and rancor in “Prisoners” — Keller’s so ferociously aggrieved, so sure of himself, that even the cops tense up when they see him coming. It’s a showy performance that narrowly avoids showing off; even so, part of you might wonder what a “Prisoners” with the casting switched around might look like.
Gyllenhaal has the thankless task of being the movie’s pillar of sanity, and one of the benefits of the long running time is that we increasingly rely on Loki as he follows leads, digs up bodies, interrogates a troubled priest (Len Cariou), and chases ghostly figures through the backyards of an economically flattened middle America. We learn a little bit about Loki’s past demons, but mostly we come to trust his calm intelligence and practiced eye. As in “Zodiac” and other recent films, Gyllenhaal conveys the stressed, watchful decency of a thinking man; maybe it’s time to acknowledge he’s turning into one of the best we have.
At a certain point in “Prisoners,” you may wonder how on earth it will pull itself together: The pieces of the puzzle not only increase exponentially but seem to be moving away from each other at light speed. When answers do come in the film’s climax — when Loki and we finally see the pattern and find our way out of the maze that’s a recurring visual motif — they’re both satisfying and deflating. (Those of you who’ve been to enough movies in recent years may have a head start just by looking at the cast list.) Try though Villeneuve may, “Prisoners” doesn’t quite work at the fiendishly intricate level of a Thomas Harris thriller like “Lambs” or “Red Dragon.” On the other hand, I’m not sure it really wants to. It’s more about not knowing than knowing, and mostly about the ways not-knowing can warp people into revealing who they really are.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.