U.S. Release Date:
November 26, 2003
Distributor: Sony (Revolution)
Director: Ron Howard
Producer: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Composer: James Horner
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer, Elisabeth Moss
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence)
At the end of any story, be it a great novel or a coworker's tale, there has to be a feeling of satisfaction, a feeling that the time devoted to it was well spent, that at the end you can answer the question "so what?" without hesitation. Unfortunately, Ron Howard's newest opus The Missing fails this fundamental test.
Though Howard's ambition to create a drama about the healing of a family using the Western as his canvas is admirable and works intermittently, The Missing ultimately fails not because it isn't well made, but because the script by Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys), which is based on Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, doesn't take enough risks. Nor does it delve enough into what has fractured this family and how it can be mended, and how some bad choices of the coming generation—symbolized by the title character Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood)—may continue the cycle of tragedy and hurt.
This is not to say that The Missing completely misfires. Concerning the search for the kidnapped Lilly by her estranged grandfather Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), mother Maggie (Cate Blanchett), and 10-year-old sister Dot (Jenna Boyd, who gives the best performance in the picture), the movie's opening sequences focusing on Maggie's life as a Northern New Mexico rancher in 1885 are quite good. Lilly is a willful young woman, who wants to escape the frontier. Dot is intrigued that she may be an Indian. Maggie has a furtive love affair with ranch hand Brake (Aaron Eckhart).
Life changes when Jones, who has gone native, returns with a minor injury seeking medical attention from Maggie, who doubles as the area's doctor. Maggie rebuffs her father, and, at the same time, her family is attacked and Lilly is carried off by a band of renegade Apache scouts intent on selling her into white slavery. Her small band of would-be rescuers has to brave the elements of Southern New Mexico (in a trip that apparently takes a few days instead of the several weeks it would in reality) and race against time to rescue her before she's sold.
It is when the movie becomes a search and rescue tale that it just spirals into the realm of the tried and true. Jones and company have several near fatal mishaps with the elements, miss a very good chance to get Lilly back and find they are battling not only a renegade Apache, but a renegade Apache brujo (a sort of witch) who has "powers" of some sort. A scene involving the brujo Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig) and Jones and company casting dueling spells over Maggie is almost physically painful to watch. But by this point the movie has lost any chance of it being a powerful family drama with good psychological insight and has become just another Hollywood chase picture, and not a very good one at that.
The biggest problem with the flick isn't so much the plot—it accomplishes in its base way what it sets out to do—but the characters. You don't really care about Jones or Maggie or Lilly. In fact, none of these characters are the least bit interesting or sympathetic. Jones abandoned his family, both white and Indian, for no reason. Maggie is completely emotionally unavailable and hard in a way that would make the hard-as-nails women in John Ford's The Searchers wince. Lilly squanders several opportunities to escape, leading to horrifying tragedies for herself and those around her. You just don't care if any of these people are happy, much less survive to the end of the picture. Sadly, it is the secondary characters Brake and the Apache Kayitah (Jay Tavare) who are not only more interesting, but elicit our sympathy.
Jones just does what he does best, playing an emotionally unavailable, competent, quietly tortured man. Blanchett's performance is a bit more problematic, with her hatred of her father overshadowing practical necessity on the one hand, and her crippling emotional problems (it is indicated that she was abused by Lilly's father) keeping her from opening up. That leaves all the psychological healing of these two strong, uncompromising people to be done internally, which may work in a novel but not in a movie. Schweig is completely wasted as Pesh-Chidin, who could have been a really excellent villain, but is nothing more than a vehicle to artificially bring father and daughter together.
Though it has its heart in the right place, The Missing is simply unable to deliver on its promise, which is all any story has to do.