Prisoners is, ostensibly, a movie about the abduction of two young girls, and their families' - primarily their fathers' - quest to get them back. From that description, The Lovely Bones is the same movie, so, no, it's not just what it seems on the surface.
Allow me to summarize Prisoners like this - it was a highly enjoyable and well above average film, and I'm not sure I ever want to see it again. A contradiction in terms, indeed, as it startles the viewer without any especially startling moments, makes you suspect everyone in the film while leaving you uncertain that it's any of them, and drops hints that are frustratingly avoided until it turns out they don't actually lead where you expect them to lead. It's a unique film in that it makes you feel genuine sympathy for each character, often simultaneously, even when the actions of one character towards another should negate that.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins start off slowly, preferring wider angles, but as the film rockets along - in spite of its 153 minute runtime - their shots become tighter, hinting at what the characters are missing because of their own narrowed focus. Villeneuve draws the best out of his skillfully selected cast, deftly blending understated and boisterous performances.
Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal front the film, as one of the girls' fathers and the, at first, too casual police officer, and while they both cement the film - Gyllenhaal's performance was reminiscent of End of Watch - it's the slower, more deliberate performances of Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, and, particularly, Paul Dano, who absorbs so much of the film's wrath, that really completes the work. Frankly, even Terrence Howard, though I am loathe to admit it, does an admirable job.
The entire film really feels like a two-and-a-half hour climax; one's heart and breathing never quite seem to slow down entirely. To say it's a rollercoaster is not entirely accurate - imagining it was the initial drop of the rollercoaster, with little relief, would be more apt.
Many other reviews have used "disturbing" to try to explain the feeling elicited by Prisoners, but it's not entirely that. Not that I think I have a better way to explain it, but "disturbing" doesn't completely work. If there was a good word to encompass a film that's equally heart-pounding, cathartic, powerful, thrilling, pathetic, depressing and triumphant, it would be a good start.
Prisoners doesn't just show how far a parent would go for their child, it shows the depths that anyone can sink to for the pursuit of what they believe to be a just cause.
Go see this film. But not at 10 at night like we did. That was a creepy drive home.