If you watch Olympic gymnastics, you have seen it.  The gymnast is on top of the world, swooping, flipping, soaring—and then next thing you know, to your great shock and theirs as well, they’ve fallen onto the mat.

I find myself thinking of “Prisoners” in terms of that image. This is not a movie that, narratively speaking, sticks the landing. But there is much mastery to be found along the way.

The film begins with a shot of a deer in the woods, and with the sound of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), saying the “Our Father” prayer. As he finishes the prayer, the camera zooms back  to reveal that Keller and his son have a rifle pointed right at the deer. Keller is a religious man, a peaceful man, but not without a violent side.

It’s a side we get to know a lot better as the film progresses. When Keller takes his kids to the neighbors for Thanksgiving, his daughter goes outside to play with their friend’s child and neither of them return.

The police, headed up by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki,  launch a full-scale investigation, but must let a major suspect (Paul Dano) slip through their fingers when the evidence against him is not sufficient. Keller, however, finds the evidence plenty sufficient, and begins to take the investigation into his own hands.

As Keller attempts to extract the truth in surprising and sickening ways, what started as a conventional kidnapped-children mystery evolves into something much weirder and richer—a brutal, frank examination of the lies that the loved ones of the missing tell themselves. Keller becomes convinced he’s above the law; his wife (Maria Bello) harbors the thought that this is all his fault. The other family with a missing child (Terence Howard and Violet Davis) becomes privy to Dover’s plan and attempts to square it with their own moral codes.

This middle section of “Prisoners” contains some of the strongest filmmaking I’ve seen all year. Jackman ventures to courageous and frightening places rarely explored in his career. Gyllenhaal does something very difficult; he makes methodical thinking interesting to watch. Director Dennis Villeneuve shows an impressive command of pacing as he ferries Aaron Guzikowski’s complex script to the screen.

The real star, however, is the Oscar-worthy cinematography by Roger Deakins. He turns rainy Pennsylvania evenings into dark nights of the soul, and candlelight vigils into frightening plays of fire and shadow.

Yet even Deakins’s expert camerawork cannot redeem the movie’s final fifteen minutes. After two hours, the movie starts tossing Law and Order­-type shockers at us–and silly, overwrought ones at that. These do not ruin the picture, but they do lead it to drop some of the thematic threads it so carefully built . Because attempts to end with a “bang!”, it ends instead with a “huh?”

“Prisoners” is no masterpiece, but it is a well-wrought character study that uses craft and not flashiness to hold your gaze. It has some bad twists, but it also has some real insights into the tangled workings of the human mind. A-