God, Christmas, crime and punishment come together in this drama/thriller by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve that begins wonderfully small only to disappointingly overreach itself in the larger themes that it is aiming for.
Children going missing can be the worst nightmare for a family, and in how he builds up to that, amid wintry rain in a small town, Villeneuve brings out the warmth and the chill of the situation all at once. The two families are close friends and it's after a cosy Thanksgiving supper together that they realise that Anna, 6, and Joy, 7, can't be found.
Their only clue is an RV (recreational vehicle) that had been parked close to their home earlier that day, which the girls had tried to climb up on only to be quickly pulled away by their elder siblings, who found it curious that someone was inside and didn't react.
Jackman and Bello (Keller and Grace) are the parents of Anna, and Howard and Davis (Franklin and Nancy) of Joy. Keller, who has had issues with violence in the past, takes care of his grief with anger even as Grace has to be kept sedated. Franklin and Nancy retreat into silence and shock.
The RV brings Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), who has never lost a case, face to face with their first suspect, Alex (Dano). However, in what is now becoming a stereotypical role for Dano, Alex is a puzzle that won't be cracked. He is revealed to have the IQ of a 10-year-old. Even as Keller disputes that theory, Loki can't hold him in custody under the rules.
Villeneuve builds up the characters nicely, each with a distinct reaction to what is a common, and shared, grief. As Loki digs deep, he finds many secrets buried under the town's snowswept streets. The film doesn't let these overpower the main story though. It stays focused on the hunt for Anna and Joy, and the paths its characters take in the pursuit.
The two main characters who take the lead in this are Keller and Loki. Keller takes matters into his own hands, determined to beat the "truth out of Alex", kidnapping him, locking him, torturing him, and finally boarding him up and gassing him. A lot then has to depend on how Jackman makes the highly religious person and loving father, who always prided himself on being prepared for any circumstance, who has a violent streak, reconcile these different sides. But for bursts of anger and some tears, Jackman never appears torn enough. Howard and the ever-excellent Davis, on the other hand ' in on the secret ' are more effective in how they justify to themselves what's happening.
Cast in the role of the sincere officer, with tattoos under the collar just hinting at another side, Gyllenhaal is concerned enough, even if reckless in how his Loki goes about alone poking his nose everywhere. The thorough actor even remembers to keep up Loki's blinking twitch at the worst of times.
However, ultimately the various strands the film keeps unspooling trip it. There are sub-plots and side stories, and Villeneuve appears more adept at unfolding rather than wrapping up. For any crime thriller to work, the end has to be as important.