Gyllenhaal, although lessened by an unnecessarily complicated plot.
Prisoners is a near perfect movie, with great performances from all cast members involved, the standouts being Hugh Jackman and especially Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives not only the best performance of his career, but also the best performance of the year. A great, great, great movie, also directed perfectly with great cinematography from Roger Deakins.
Edit: Rewatched this and still loved it. Love the piercing commentary on Bush era-torture and the inherent failures of vigilante justice.
The key to Prisoner's staggering success begins with its plot, which is brilliantly realized. To often, with mystery stories, the tendency is to present a group of characters, throw in some sort of crime that needs to be solved, offer up a slew of generic and easily predicted "twists" and then try to "surprise" us by revealing which of the characters is the culprit (usually complete with the dread "Talking Killer" syndrome where the bad guy spills the beans about his or her schemes while giving the protagonist ample opportunity to get the upper hand). Although some of these elements are present after a fashion in this case, the method of their inclusion is far more intelligent and unpredictable than the average Hollywood take on this kind of story. Villeneuve, along with screenwriter Aaron Gruzikowski, weaves a singularly involving tapestry that takes a number of seemingly disparate plot threads and ties them altogether in a satisfying manner. This film rewards the thinking viewer rather than punish those who dare to use their brains and a second viewing reveals just how well everything comes together.
In addition to its strong story-line and impeccable sense of direction, Prisoners has been blessed with an impressive cast that's headed up by Hugh Jackman (as Keller Dover, the father of one of the missing girls) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as Loki, the lead detective on the case), both of whom have rarely (if ever) been better than they are here. Joining them are Maria Bello (as Dover's wife, Grace), Terence Howard and Viola Davis (as Franklin and Nancy Birch, the parents of the other missing girl and the reluctant co-conspirators in Dover's plan to exact revenge and get answers for the girls' kidnapping), Paul Dano (as Alex Jones, the mentally-handicapped chief suspect in the case who ends being subject to Keller's torture) and Melissa Leo (as Alex's aunt Holly). All of these actors and actresses are well-respected and, with the exception of Bello and Dano (at least as of this writing in 2016), all have been nominated at least once for an Oscar (with Leo winning for her performance in 2010's The Fighter) so naturally with a cast of this caliber, there are certain expectations that come attached; thankfully everyone proves more than equally to this daunting task and no one, even amongst the actors in bit parts, is found wanting. In particular, Jackman stands out as the grief-stricken Keller; he brings his character's torment, grief, anger and confusion to the forefront every bit as forcefully as Sean Penn did in Mystic River. The actor is arguably even better here than he was in 2012's Les Miserables adaptation (for which he was awarded his Oscar nomination). This is the side of Jackman at which we only occasionally get glimpses in the X-Men or standalone Wolverine films (which are arguably still his best known roles). There are times when we feel deeply for Keller and others still when we might be tempted to hate his guts (although he probably hates himself as much if not more as he recognizes that some of his actions throughout the course of the film often contravene his deeply held moral and religious beliefs) and it's Jackman's performance more than anything that facilitates these very complex emotions we have towards this very complex character. Matching him beat for beat is Jake Gyllenhaal who builds on his work in 2012's End of Watch (where he also portrayed a cop) and fashions Loki as a lonely but driven detective who's committed to his job (possibly to a fault) but isn't fully prepared for the emotional and moral dark places to which his latest case takes him (one scene in particular where he lashes out in frustration at his desk drives home the point very clearly and powerfully). The rest of the cast lifts the burden off the top-billed duo and nearly everyone has at least on scene in which he or she is allowed to really shine (Dano, in particular, succeeds at bringing a mixture of unsettling creepiness and child-like innocence to his character that inspires equal parts revulsion and sympathy in the viewer). In many ways, it's a damn shame that Prisoners didn't get more attention at the 2013 Oscar ceremony because there's more than enough here to have easily justified multiple nominations, particularly for the powerhouse performances of the cast.
To say much more about this film would be to reveal entirely too much that would be better left for the individual viewer to uncover on his or her own but, for anyone who craves stories aimed at thinking adults, this should be considered as ironclad of a must-see as anything currently out on the market. In addition to offering the requisite genre thrills (including enough tension and suspense for multiple stories), it provides a healthy portion of compelling drama and more than enough thought-provoking and disturbing material to gnaw at the soul for days (or even weeks) and, even at a running length of over two and a half hours, the movie manages to be well-paced and engaging for every single second, right up to the last frame. Best of all, even though it brings the central mystery to a satisfying conclusion, it doesn't feel the need to tie everything up in a neat and clean package just to placate adherents of conventional Hollywood fare; some viewers may be frustrated (possibly even angered) by how Villeneuve and Gruzikowski elect to close things out but I found the ending to be fitting for the grim and uncertain tone of the story. This movie's title may connote a confined state of mind but quite frankly I couldn't have been happier to be taken captive and held in this film's thrall as it was unspooling its intricate and complex tale of crime and punishment. It's well worth the expenditure of a couple hours of anyone's time.