The Missing

Director Ron Howard takes another step forward in his career with The Missing, adapted from the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson. His last film, A Beautiful Mind, won the Academy Award. Most of his other films seem to echo his nice guy image all the way back to Happy Days. He's a terribly competent director, but nobody seems to notice because Howard (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) seems to usually make mainstream films with wide appeal. The Missing is one of these films, but interweaves some darker elements not usually present in Howard's films. This is a western that has supernatural elements, one with a constant, sinister sense of dread. The Missing takes place in 1886 New Mexico, where Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett, Veronica Guerin, The Two Towers) lives with her two daughters.

Maggie's father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones, The Hunted, Men in Black II) abandoned her years ago. He suddenly shows up offering her money, but she rebuffs him. Shortly after, Maggie's daughter Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen, Sim0ne) is kidnapped by some Apaches who want to sell her as a slave in Mexico. Maggie notifies the Army, which begins a search, but Samuel lived among various Indian tribes for years, and is probably the only person who can realistically find Lainey. She tells him that if he really wants to help her, he can do his best to find Lainey. Maggie's other daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd, Dickie Roberts, The Hunted), a spunky young girl (aren't they all?) tags along.

According to movie law, if Jones is in a movie he must be chasing something. He tempers his usual intense performance here with a hint of sadness. He is trying to make up for years of neglect, and this seems like the only thing he can do. Every time he tries to reach out to Maggie she pushes him away. Searching for Lainey gives the three of them lots of time where they circle each other warily. Maggie is understandably mad, but must rely completely on the father she never knew in order to rescue Lainey. This is extremely difficult for her, since she harbors highly resentful feelings towards Samuel and she herself is very independent. Again, Blanchett's performance is engrossing. She easily slips into yet another accent, and the emotional turmoil her character feels for the entire movie is evident in her face and words.

Kudos also go to Eric Schweig (Skins, Big Eden) who plays Chidin, the Apache who kidnaps Lainey. Chidin is a mysterious shaman. His character has few lines, but he is on screen for a decent amount of time and remains a menacing presence. Chidin represents the unknown for Maggie. She is a healer, and knows what medicines to use to heal specific diseases. The realm of magic makes no sense to her. She doesn't believe it. Samuel, on the other hand, believes in the power that Chidin has and tries to convince Maggie otherwise.

Howard shoots the huge vistas of New Mexico with an eye for scenic detail. Everything is spread out and beautiful, yet there is a profound sense of loneliness here. It is this same feeling of loneliness that helps explain the motivations of Samuel, Maggie, and Lainey. And just as The Missing is a step forward for Howard, it is a step forward for adapter Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys, Muppets From Space), whose prior credits include a Pauly Shore movie. Still, Howard could have used an editor to cut down some of the running time. The story feels drawn out, as if he took a little too much time focusing on the scenery. Lainey does a colossally stupid thing near the end that feels more like it is there for dramatic effect than an integral part of the story. The only thing it does is make people think her character is an idiot. In fact, The Missing is pretty much standard western, prettied up with some good acting and a different sort of villain.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated R for violence.

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