Review by Dustin Putman
2½ stars out of 4
It is no secret that the western genre has been ailing for over a
decade, not helped by the very weak offerings that have popped up
in recent years2001's "American Outlaws," 2001's "Texas Rangers,"
and 2003's "Open Range" among them. That "The Missing," directed with
evocative sty le by Ron Howard (2001's "A Beautiful Mind"), effectively
tells a story that keeps our attention instantly places it several
notches above the sloppy and dull former films. Too bad, then, that
"The Missing" overstays its welcome by at least fifteen minutes.
Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a single mother living on the
sparsely populated open lands of the New Mexico frontier, circa 1885.
When her lover, Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), is brutally murdered
and mopey teenage daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), is kidnapped
by a dangerous Aztec mystic named Chidin (Eric Schweiger) who plans
to sell her over the Mexican border, Maggie will go to any length
necessary to save her. Those lengths turn out to be more painful than
expected, however, as she must seek help from her estranged father,
Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned her family twenty years
earlier to become an Indian. With tough younger da ughter, Dot (Jenna
Boyd), in tow, Maggie and Samuel set out on a trek across New Mexico
to put a stop to Chidin and save Lilly before it is too late.
The prerelease ads and trailers for "The Missing" have misleadingly
billed it as more of a supernatural thriller than a conventional western.
If you can get past the fact that its supernatural elements are basically
beside the point and its thriller aspect only comes from the horror
involved in a mother losing her daughter to what are essentially a
group of pimps, what you will find is a western adventure that may
not be terribly original, but hits enough involving emotional chords
to be worthwhile. The setup of the driving plot is its highlight section,
as Maggie suddenly finds herself having lost a loved one and must
risk losing Lilly, too, if she does not find a way to find her before
the captors reach Mexico. The atmosphere-drenched cinematography,
by Salvatore Totino (2002's "Changing Lanes"), is simply glorious,
painting the untouched soils of the New Mexico forests and canyons
as a rapturous character in and of themselves.
Cate Blanchett (2001's "The Shipping News") brings a fierce energy
and reluctant vulnerability to her role of Maggie Gilkeson, who not
only suffers the blow of having her daughter snatched from her, but
is reunited with a father who abandoned her years ago and whom she
has no interest in rekindling a relationship with. The anger and resentment
Blanchett projects toward Samuel is palpably felt throughout, and
the way in which they gradually attempt to put their differences behind
them is the true centerpiece of the picture. Tommy Lee Jones (2003's
"The Hunted") skillfully portrays Samuel as a man who gave up his
family to become what he felt was right for himself, but now, years
later, feels guilt over what he put his family through.
Jenna Boyd (2003's "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star") brings mature
conviction to her impressive performance as Maggie's younger daughter,
Dot, while Evan Rachel Wood (remarkable in 2003's "Thirteen") has
less to do as Lilly, mostly seen as the helpless victim throughout
the picture. Finally, as lead villain Chidin, Eric Schweiger makes
for a memorably threatening, even scary, presence.
As "The Missing" passes the two-hour mark, interest ultimately begins
to lag. The film breaks up its shoot-out climax into three separate
sequences, each one less powerful than the last. Had Chidin been the
only foe, rather than surrounded by a bunch of disposable henchmen,
this problem may have easily been solved. After all, Chidin is the
sol e villainous character with any sort of consequence to the viewer.
Other extraneous scenes also could have been cut in the second half
without losing anything of real importance, while the very serious
matter of Maggie's rape is too safely washed over and not touched upon again.
At 130 minutes, "The Missing" seems much longer than it even is. Staying
with it throughout its slower patches, however, proves to be a mostly
rewarding experience. Director Ron Howard appreciatively does away
with the maudlin sentimentality many of his earlier films have fallen
victim to, and he proves to adeptly know his way around the western
genre. The final scene between Maggie and Samuel hits a particularly
palpable note, concluding their troubled relationship with the right
amount of emotional closure and understandable opened ends. "The Missing"
may not be a standout western for modern day audiences, but it is
undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman