Directed By: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano

It's official.  The awards season has begun at the box office.  Though we've had some early contenders such as Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine, and The Butler, we've now hit that time of year where we'll see more of the movies that will be competing for golden statuettes in January and February of next year.  Last year around this time, we had Paul Thomas Anderson's indie drama The Master kicking things off.  This year, things are a little more mainstream.  Denis Villeneuve is getting things started with Prisoners, a star-studded crime thriller about two innocent little girls getting abducted.  That being said, Villeneuve has just thrown the gauntlet down for everyone else coming later in the fall.  Prisoners is one tremendously gripping movie!

It's Thanksgiving, and this means it's time for the Dovers and Birches to get together for food and festivities.  Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) come over to the Birch home to have some adult fun with Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis).  While they break out the wine and have a good time, their kids get some quality time together as well.  Their young girls Anna Dover and Joy Birch (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) would like to go outside and play, but their parents will only let them if their siblings Ralph and Eliza (Dylan Minnette and Zoe Borde) accompany them.  While out, the girls start playing on a suspicious-looking RV parked nearby, and their older siblings take them off.  When the girls go back out later on their own to search for a red whistle Anna misplaced, that RV disappears, and so do the girls.

Shortly after the girls go missing, Keller and Franklin scour the neighborhood in search of them.  When they find nothing, Ralph and Eliza tell them about the RV, and they call the police to get them to kick off an investigation.  Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.  He puts out a search for that RV.  What he finds in the dark of night near the woods is a mentally challenged young adult named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who drives this RV straight into a tree in a failed attempt to flee the scene.  Loki takes him into custody but finds no evidence that connects him to the missing girls.  After 48 hours, he has to let his only suspect go.  It's the law.  Afterward, Loki continues pounding the pavement in search of other clues.  Meanwhile, Alex's release doesn't sit too well with Keller who accosts Alex and his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) outside the precinct.  Soon after, Keller takes Alex hostage to find out where the girls are.  Now, we'll see how far this father is willing to go to find his daughter.

Easily the best thriller I've seen this year, Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners hits all the right notes.  It's a winding crime saga full of mazes, snakes, and some perverted individuals who have lost their faith in God.  It's a challenging drama that shows how far a man is willing to go to save his child.  Expertly directed by Villeneuve, this thriller offers plenty of subtle slices of horror illustrated by dark figures lurking in the shadows and frightful shots of eyes that have seen hell on earth.  At the same time, this well-crafted film has some truly nightmarish developments that are brought to raw and brutal clarity time and time again.  Featuring some really sick forms of torture, Prisoners may just be the Zero Dark Thirty of abduction thrillers.  All in all, this movie is a poignant thriller that endlessly captivates, frequently horrifies, and occasionally delights.

The film showcases some phenomenal performances from all actors involved.  As our star Keller, Hugh Jackman gives us one truly tortured soul.  A recovering alcoholic and a survivalist who stockpiles emergency supplies like the world will end tomorrow, Keller is pushed over the edge by the abduction of his girl Anna to some really dark places. Jackman brilliantly depicts this tormented man who will do whatever he must to find his daughter by committing some truly vile acts.  Despite facing a horrific situation with malicious resolve, Keller confronts a wide range of emotions that overtake him.  Jackman brings these emotions to the forefront with some truly potent acting.  At this point in his career, Jackman seems to be oscillating between serious roles and X-Men movies.  He delivered an outstanding Jean Valjean in Les Misérables last year.  He reprised his role as the immortal mutant in The Wolverine.  He delivers another powerhouse performance here in Prisoners, and he'll once again be suiting up as Wolverine next year in X-Men: Days of Future Past.  This career choice is clearly working.  With his performance in Prisoners, Jackman probably won't have to recite the Lord's Prayer to once again be in the Oscar hunt in February.

Beyond Jackman, we have some strong performances from Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello.  As Joy's parents Franklin and Nancy Birch, Howard and Davis personify the patience and penitence required to endure the trouble and affliction that comes their way.  What started with two little girls singing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" becomes this immense tragedy where they face tremendous obstacles and major moral dilemmas with wavering strength but unmoving determination to find their little girl.  They give profound performances as these parents struggling with a panoply of emotions.  Conversely, Maria Bello gives a muted performance in which her character Grace Dover becomes a shell of her former self.  Broken by grief, she wastes away as this major crisis looms over her family.

A year ago to the weekend, he was playing a cop in End of Watch.  This weekend, Jake Gyllenhaal is once again a man of the law in Prisoners as Detective Loki.  As the officer who's solved every case that's ever come his way, Gyllenhaal gives us a relentless advocate for these girls who consistently looks for the larger context of the tragic events unfolding.  While he gives us a character with great intuition and plenty of emotional depth, I'll remember his performance here most for the hilarious things he mutters under his breath and the occasional comic relief he brings to this really intense thriller. 

Lastly, I have to talk about Paul Dano and Melissa Leo.  For his part as Alex, Dano reminds us of why he's so great at portraying creepy oddball characters.  The There Will Be Blood star once again gives a chilling performance as this slow but cold fish.  He consistently impresses us as this offbeat freak and should tackle more roles like this.  For her part as his aunt, Melissa Leo continues to demonstrate that she's a chameleon.  Whether being a crazy mom in The Fighter, a diligent NTSB investigator in Flight, or a robotic holograph in Oblivion, this woman can do just about anything.  In this slippery performance as Holly, Leo gives us a woman who bitterly deals with the poor hand life has dealt her in the most sickening way imaginable.  After her F-bomb at the Oscars a few years back, I don't expect to see her in the Best Supporting Actress race.  Nonetheless, she's certainly earned it with her incredible work here.

Prisoners really took me somewhere.  It's a thriller that just does it all right.  Smartly directed by Denis Villeneuve and fueled by some excellent performances from his cast, this movie gets the awards season started right.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is what greatness looks like on the big screen.  Prisoners gets a sober rating.