What makes this thriller extraordinary is its willingness to make us scratch our heads and ask questions as the tense, fable-like story patiently unfolds. This creates an almost unbearably involving vibe, from the slow-burn pacing to the unusual character detail. And all of this allows the cast members to dig deep inside their characters.
It starts as two families in rural Pennsylvania get together to celebrate Thanksgiving, then discover that their two young daughters are missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Jackman and Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Howard and Davis) search the neighbourhood frantically, then try to help local detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) with his investigation. He settles on an oddball (Dano) who seems unable to provide any information at all. With no evidence against him, he's released. But Keller can't bear to think of this man being free while the girls are missing, so he hatches his own plan to sort things out.
There's a lot of symbolism in this screenplay, as everyone reacts to the situation in his or her own way (clearly echoing the world's response to the War on Terror). But it's also a riveting personal story of the desperate need for justice and revenge. Jackman is terrific as the deeply religious man whose love of guns informs his decision-making. He impulsively reacts like Liam Neeson in Taken, charging to the rescue. By contrast, Gyllenhaal's Loki is more measured and observant, while Howard's Franklin struggles with his own moral decisions. The women are a completely different story, and equally provocative: Davis is feisty but helpless, while Bello crawls into her shell.
All of the performances are pungent, continually forcing us to explore our own reactions to things that happen to us. And the side characters played by Dano and Leo (as his aunt) are just as unnervingly resonant. All of this is stunningly well shot by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins to capture that point in the year when rain shifts to snow. And director Villeneuve refuses to rush, gripping us tightly as he quietly reveals telling details while cranking the tension to unbearable levels over two and a half hours.