The Missing, director Ron Howard’s first film since A Beautiful Mind, is a flinty Western with life and death struggles played out against desolate landscapes. It’s also a portrait of an estranged father and daughter forced together by circumstance. It’s a thriller about a kidnapping, too, plus a study of contrasts between those who worship the Christian God and those who invoke various earth gods to do their bidding.
Ed says: “‘The Missing’ wants to be haunting, but doesn’t get past stark.”
So, did Ron Howard bite off more than he can chew? Some critics are lauding the film as the finest work of his career. Others, like me, feel that the movie lacks that certain something that makes a story resonate with the viewer. The look is certainly right and, of course, lead players Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones have the acting chops. But even James Horner’s determined score can’t add feeling to blank spaces. The Missing wants to be haunting, but it doesn’t get past stark. The screenplay, written by Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys) and based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, opens in 1885, with frontier healer Maggie Gilkeson (Blanchett) pulling out the last rotten tooth from the mouth of a sobbing old lady. We get a close-up of the extraction; Ron Howard’s little way of making sure we understand that he isn’t fucking around here. Maggie is a stoic Christian woman raising her daughters — rebellious teen Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and scrappy young Dot (Jenna Boyd) — without their father (if his absence was explained, I missed it). Luckily, her boyfriend Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) drops by for the occasional session of hot sin-drenched clandestine Wild West lovin’. Then, out of the blue, a craggy, long-haired cuss known as Jones (Jones) turns up for treatment, leaving Maggie aghast as she recognizes him as her father, who ditched the family 20 years earlier to go all Dances with Wolves with an Apache tribe. I shall pause here to note two things: First, Brake Baldwin would be a great name for a soap opera character or a porn star. Second, writing “Jones (Jones)” in the last paragraph was fun. Meanwhile, back on the frontier, Maggie agrees to treat Jones and lets him sleep over in the barn, but demands that he leave in the morning. There will be no reconciliation here. Certainly not this early in the story! The next morning, Jones departs as ordered, never to be seen again. Just kidding. Actually, disaster strikes soon after he leaves, when the homestead is attacked by a group of renegades, led by Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a brujo (witch) given to spell-casting and bursts of homicidal violence. The renegades are collecting teen-age girls to sell as slaves in Mexico and older daughter Lilly gets snatched. A frantic Maggie turns to the authorities for help, but gets none. The sheriff (Clint “If it wasn’t for my older brother I’d be an appliance salesman” Howard) can’t spare a man because of a street fair, and the army lieutenant (Val Kilmer, in a forgettable cameo) she pleads with is understanding, but ineffectual. So Maggie, with extreme reluctance, must team up with Jones to try and rescue Lily. Oh, and little Dot comes along, because the young spitfire refuses to wait with friends. Think about that for a moment. Your elder daughter has been kidnapped by slave traders. You have seen the mangled bodies of men they have killed. Yet you — a fiercely protective parent — bring along your little girl because she’s so willful. Right. All of this, by the way, is just the set-up for the big pursuit, which takes up the bulk of the 130-minute production. There is little doubt how the story will end, making the obstacles between the abduction and the denouement all the more important. There are some exciting scenes, but too many are routine, and the mystical sequences have a New Age-y feel at odds with the period. The exchanges between Maggie and Jones are even more vital, especially since the supporting players are almost all stereotypes. Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful, adding welcome nuance to his blunt character (his “now can she have the moccasins?” scene is the high point of the film). Cate Blanchett, an extraordinarily talented actor, adds what shading she can to the emotionally suppressed Maggie. They get the job done, but Ron Howard’s determination to avoid sentimentality, admirable though it may be, results in a great-looking, masterfully performed film that is emotionally stunted. The Missing is a good movie that could have been great.