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***1/2

It's not every week we get a thriller as atmospheric as David Fincher's Seven. It's not every month we see a police procedural as meticulously crafted as Fincher's Zodiac. And it's not every year we witness a family melodrama as squirm-inducing as Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Prisoners succeeds in being all these things at once, and it's not every day we catch such an admirable balancing act. Yet don't think for a minute that we're watching a greenhorn director slavishly patterning his career after another filmmaker. Denis Villeneuve, the Quebec-born director of Prisoners, has been making movies as long as Fincher (he's best known stateside for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Incendies), and his first effort in English aptly demonstrates that none of his skills have been lost in translation.

Prisoners feels like an AMBER Alert writ large, using the queasy notion of missing children as a starting point for its exploration of several issues that aren't black and white but instead rot away inside a malodorous area of gray. It's Thanksgiving in a small Pennsylvania town, and the Dovers - dad Keller (Hugh Jackman), mom Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) - and the Birches - dad Franklin (Terrence Howard), mom Nancy (Viola Davis), teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) - have gathered at the Birch residence for a sumptuous meal. But after Anna and Joy wander off down the street to the Dover house to fetch a toy whistle, they never return, sending the adults into a panic. The only possible clue to the girls' whereabouts is a van previously seen parked down the street, a vehicle that's later discovered in a parking lot.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cop who reportedly has never met a case he couldn't solve, is quick to apprehend the driver, a young man by the name of Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Keller is convinced that Alex is the one who snatched the girls, but Loki isn't so sure: There's no evidence in the van of foul play, and, as Paul's aunt (Melissa Leo) confirms, Alex has the mind of a 10-year-old boy and seems unlikely to have pulled off such a caper. But there's no convincing Keller: He alone has been privy to clues that strongly suggest the simple-minded man was responsible, so he snatches Alex at gunpoint, keeping him bound in an abandoned house and repeatedly torturing him in the hopes that a confession will eventually be whispered through bloody and battered lips.

The script by Aaron Guzikowski is wonderfully dense, with very little feeling extraneous. An elderly priest (Len Cariou) battling his own demons, a young man (David Dastmalchian) even more odd than Alex, a dog dangling from a raised leash, small containers with something ominous inside (a great scene), that little red whistle - the film is like a lean cut of meat, with all the fat trimmed off and the rest providing the necessary protein to keep functioning.

To be sure, Guzikowski does make a few missteps - in particular, the end game of one character is never adequately explained - but none are make-or-break moments, the type of dunderheaded leaps of logic that have crippled lesser mysteries. In fact, it's been a few days since I've seen the film, and its gaffes continue to matter less even as its themes continue to haunt and resonate. How far is too far when it comes to the safety of our children? How much slack do we cut those who are less fortunate than the rest of us? What defines a hero most? (After the film, the knight in shining - or maybe tarnished - armor still probably isn't who you think.)

And - that old classic - does the end justify the means? To its credit, Prisoners refuses to be held captive by any rigid rules of conformist conduct, choosing instead to present moviegoers with a rusty moral compass and asking them to navigate their own choppy waters.

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