Missing, The  (2003)


Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart
Ron Howard

Rating: R

Studio: Revolution Studios

Release Date: 11.26.03

Review Posted: 11.26.03

Spoilers: Minor


By Sara M. Fetters


Howard Doesn’t Miss with Austere and Powerful Western


For all of Ron Howard’s strengths as a director – and there are many – affinity to mine the darker nether regions of his more ambitious fare is not one of them. Lacking the subtle touches that could make him a great filmmaker, instead of a very good one, the former child star of the “Andy Griffith Show” tends to pour syrup on his pictures when I big spoonful of castor oil would be more suitable. This penchant for schmaltz deeply affected the potency of good films like “Ransom” and “A Beautiful Mind” (Oscar or no), and completely undid others like “Backdraft” and “Far and Away.”


It’s a complaint that’s been levied at the director for some time and looking back over his catalog it’s a valid one. It is as if Howard doesn’t mind showing his teeth, he just doesn’t want to bite you with them. Problem is, some films need to sink their mark deep into your skin to make them unforgettable, that sting of ripping flesh and trickle of crimson the only way to hammer home a person’s deeply visceral plight or situation.


With his new movie “The Missing,” Howard once more shows his pearly whites as a director. This is a deep, brooding western rooted in frailty and retribution. There is depravity in this tale of kidnapping, murder and sexual exploitation that cannot be easily dismissed or explained, a collection of woe and pain will not be put to rest. It is an odd choice for a director bent on bringing light and hope into his even darkest tales, one who has up to now always believed in the Hollywood ethos of a happy ending. But Howard surprises. Not only are those teeth out, this time he not only bites, but draws blood as well.


Based on the novel “The Last Ride” by Thomas Edison and working from a subtly nuanced screenplay by Ken Kaufman (“Space Cowboys”), “The Missing” is set in the ruggedly austere New Mexico countryside of 1885. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett, “Elizabeth,” “Bandits”) is a rural healer trying to eke out a living on her small cattle ranch while raising two young daughters, teenager Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood, “Thirteen”) and her little sister Dot (Jenna Boyd, “The Hunted”), all on her lonesome. She’s helped running the place by Brake (Aaron Eckhart, “The Core”), a hardy cowboy with his pale crystal eyes set firmly on the struggling single mother.


Into their lives one frosty winter’s evening comes Jones (Tommy Lee Jones, “Men in Black,” “The Fugitive”), Maggie’s runaway father returning to check in on his family after living 20-years with area native tribes. To say the headstrong healer is not happy to see her long lost father is an understatement. If anything, this daughter wants to have nothing to do with her leathery shell of an old man, kicking him off her property just as fast as she’s able. But after Lilly is kidnapped by mysterious Apache mystic Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig, “The Last of the Mohicans”), Maggie must ask her father for help tracking the dangerous witch – whom Jones calls a “brujo” – before he can cross into Mexico and sell her daughter into sexual slavery.


“The Missing” is a driving, pulsating western that’s absolutely riveting from first frame to last. While it doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, it definitely goes a long way towards reinvigorating it in a way we haven’t seen since Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” It is a tense, scary picture full of brutal images and coarse events, glued together by a story of familial redemption that’s surprisingly potent.


Oscar-winning actor Jones is quite good as the one-native white man, constantly searching for pieces of himself than cannot be found. He’s a man haunted by the choices he’s made, driven to leave his own family by desires he can’t quite explain. Yet, this lifetime with the Apache has not made Jones happy. As strong as the longing to “be native” is, they refuse to accept him as one of their own; a faux Indian estranged just as much from those he’s related to by blood as he is to those he longs to be.


Blanchett is even better. She anchors “The Missing” with a stern matriarchal stubbornness, making Maggie a driving force of nature intent on saving her oldest daughter – even if it puts her youngest child in mortal danger. Yet, Blanchett connect to a delicate femininity deeply welled inside of the distraught mother, cementing her in equal parts emotional grief and resolute resolve making Maggie one of the most fully realized female characters to ever grace a western. As good as her work was in “Veronica Guerin,” that film was a travesty of posh sentiment and overwrought melodrama that almost sullied the very image of the woman it wanted to deify. Here, not only is Blanchett completely brilliant and mesmerizing, so is the movie around her, both elevating the other to near-perfect levels.


The supporting actors are also quite good. Schweig hits just the right balance between pure maniacal evil and vengeful revenge as the mystical brujo, while Eckhart shines with quiet restraint and plaintive longing as Maggie’s would-be lover Brake. The girls are both outstanding, young Boyd stealing many a scene with her resolute, teary resolve. Jay Tavare (“Adaptation”) makes an indelible impression as an tragically impassioned father trying to save his son’s future wife, while Val Kilmer (“Wonderland”) pops up briefly as an empty Army officer, internally aching at the priorities his own country seems immutable over.


What is most impressive is the delicate equilibrium Howard and Kaufman strike in their depiction of Native American culture. While Pesh-Chidin is undeniably depraved, he wasn’t always that way, he and his followers betrayed by the U.S. Army and scheduled to be shipped off to reservations even though they in turn dishonored their own people by joining up as calvary scouts. But making these Apaches the villians isn’t some throwback to a pre-“Dances With Wolves” world. There is equipoise between the good and the bad here, and none of the natives on either side can be called completely one or the other. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at a time in U.S. history that tends to get the most superficially modest of treatments, “The Missing” hitting a balance between right and wrong that’s at least ten shades of gray – no black or white to be seen for miles.


Don’t expect tidy or happy endings. For once in his life as a director, Howard does not shy away from the more gruesome consequences of his character’s actions, making atonement as brutal and bloody as it can be. I think I finally realized just how far the director was willing to go when the captive girl’s abductors started getting them ready to be shown to potential buyers. Gussied up in a tight-fitting corsets fraying at the seams, and made up garishly and in almost clown-like fashion by their brutish captors, this a nightmare of surreal timorous beauty drawn by a violent hand of hate and revenge.


But it is only one of many such images that Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Any Given Sunday”) draw, “The Missing” filled with moments of power and visual poetry that burn into memory. From a languidly ominous blue mist wrapping around a winter’s field to a beastly sack of animal skins containing a compacted human body in anguished repose to the flight of an eagle in all its stoical sincerity, the two manage a visual poetry that’s nearly ethereal. But beneath the beauty is the constant human terror lying just underneath the surface of every moment – light and dark – cradling “The Missing” in a web a sadness that’s passionately mournful.


Sure, bits and pieces of it fall into cliché, and there is a coincidence or two that just don’t fit, “The Missing” still boasts a power few movies this year have achieved. As 2003 closes, like last season Hollywood has again attempted to save their bet for last in their hopeful pursuit of Oscar. What’s most impressive is that for two years in a row they have more or less succeeded. From “Mystic River” to “Master and Commander” to “The Station Agent” to “Intolerable Cruelty,” Tinseltown is achieving a quality and an adult calenture to their films the likes of which hasn’t been seen in ages. “The Missing” joins these ranks with a vengeance, digging deep into the soul of pain and hurt, family and commitment, like none other. For what may be the first time, Howard has his masterpiece, and it is a film you just can’t miss.


Rating: êêê1/2  (out of 4)





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