In earlier generations, extended riffs on totalitarian communism (Animal Farm) and the Red Scare (The Crucible) worked thanks to their literary merits. These days it's getting harder to find that sweet spot where an audience clearly understands what you're trying to say, yet doesn't feel bludgeoned by a Very Important Message About Society.
Prisoners gets off to a rough start in that regard. Québécois director Denis Villeneuve (the 2011 Oscar nominee for Incendies) slowly pulls away from Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his teenage son (Dylan Minnette), who are preparing to shoot a deer in the Pennsylvania woods while reciting a prayer. A few moments later, an RV drives by playing the gospel pop tune "Put Your Hand in the Hand." A few moments after that, Villeneuve shows the cross hanging from the rearview mirror of Keller's pickup truck. He makes sure you know that this is God's country.
The plot kicks into gear when Keller's 7-year-old daughter and her best friend disappear. There's a suspect almost immediately -- Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the driver of the aforementioned RV -- but the investigating officer, Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is unable to find any physical evidence. Keller takes matters into his own hands, starting by interrogating Alex. Then he turns his abandoned childhood apartment into a backwoods Gitmo. "He stopped being a person when he took them," he rationalizes as he subjects Alex to various punishments.
Though the allegory is punctuated with many exclamation points, Villeneuve builds tense chases and showdowns into a complex puzzle regarding what actually happened to the two girls. The action is grounded in solid performances by Jackman and Gyllenaal.
But things start to veer off track in the final hour, as Villeneuve piles on plot turns that link everything into one big, evil conspiracy. At this point, Prisoners starts to feel like a punishment for the audience.