The Dover family is barely hanging on financially and emotionally when its youngest member Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with her best friend Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Teen son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) jump starts the investigation with his description of a ramshackle RV seen parked in front of the Dover home about the time of the girls’ disappearance.
After pursuing and then arresting the RV’s owner, police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends 10 hours interrogating Alex Jones (Paul Dano). He concludes the mentally disabled young man is incapable of covering up such a crime.
Mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) descends into catatonic depression, while her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman), an underemployed carpenter and avid survivalist, works himself into a state of rage-fueled mania. After asking questions and getting no answers Keller tries taking matters into his own hands.
One would like to believe that a solved kidnapping or murder ends the suffering of loved ones, but Dover and his wife’s painful disillusionment began brewing long before their young daughter disappeared.
Detective Loki, distinguished by a remarkable 100-percent solve rate, is a bloodhound who forsakes a personal life. His on-the-clock shifts are spent investigating level-three sex offenders, but, after Dover goes rogue, Loki spends off hours searching for Dover.
Loki’s instincts and dogged methods uncover crimes and suspects that may or may not lead to Anna and Joy. For his part, Dover visits Alex’s guardian aunt, Holly Jones, in an effort to uncover the lad’s secrets. Played by Melissa Leo as a sad, steely widow, Jones seems pleased when Dover offers to perform odd jobs on her dilapidated home free of charge.
Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the Dover’s neighbors and parents of Anna’s friend Joy, alternately support and object to Dover’s unorthodox methods. Their shared pain with the Dovers ultimately gains Keller the wholesome couple’s tacit approval.
Whether each character gets his just deserts is a matter for an after-the-movie coffee klatch. This isn’t a story working itself up to a happy ending. Nor does “Prisoners” feel obligated to explain, much less expound upon, the mysteries Loki accidentally unearths. While the journey to reach its conclusion is undeniably engrossing, the film’s resolution is hard to stomach.
Viewers are invited to wrestle with Loki and Dover’s methodologies and to decide which of the two is most responsible for solving the case. It’s a tough call intellectually and emotionally, but that’s precisely what makes it worth doing.