If only Howard and screenwriter Ken Kaufman could pony up a story worthy of Cate's efforts. Working from Thomas Eidson's novel, Kaufman has penned an abduction case that plays out along a surprisingly linear course. Any time he attempts to branch out in a valuable subplot - whether exploring the ineffective nature of authority in the Wild West, or staging one of many dramatic escape sequences - he does so without confidence. Missing occasionally teases us with relevant character and plot development, then rapidly turns tail and scurries back to the central pursuit story, a slender narrative that can't hold our interest for the film's elongated 147-minute run time.
The person doing the pursuing is Maggie Gilkeson (Blanchett), a single mom tending to her New Mexico property with daughters Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd) in 1885. One day while shepherding the cattle, the girls are attacked and Lily is kidnapped by Apache warriors who collect women for the purpose of sale in Mexico. With nowhere else to turn, Maggie must recruit her apologetic father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), a wanderer with a sullied past looking to reconcile with his daughter after years of neglect.
The Missing is challenging filmmaking that doesn't challenge the viewer. The result is Howard's least interesting movie in years. The film eliminates the gray areas that normally hide human drama, creating clear cut heroes and villains. Once the lines in the sand are drawn, the picture plays through without suspense.
Howard does pad the journey with obstacles, from Maggie's sudden illness at the hands of an Indian curse to Samuel's failed attempt to purchase Lily and the subsequent beating he receives for his efforts. These scenes slowly delay the inevitable and reek of filler. Even a dramatic flood rescue feels like a jolt intended to shake audience members out of their slumber.
Howard and Kaufman suggest a desire to explore their historical surroundings but don't use their time wisely. Subplots are broached then disregarded. There's mention that the Apache were U.S. soldiers who flipped allegiances, but nothing comes of this revelation. The examples of authority Maggie encounters provide cameos but no assistance. Look for Clint Howard as a spineless town sheriff and Val Kilmer as a marauding U.S. general leading restless troops.
We can see pieces of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and John Ford's The Searchers on screen in The Missing. Howard's camera seems to stretch its circular eye as wide as possible in an effort to capture New Mexico's breathtaking natural landscapes. He backdrops his human drama with miraculous natural vistas that never dwarf the actors. There's even more than enough of Andrew Davis' The Fugitive, and not just because Jones plays a tracker named Samuel in each.
What's missing from The Missing is Howard's heart and human touch in the face of tragedy. Missing will most be remembered for the window it gives into Howard's dark side. The aftermath of the abduction is brutal. The savagery of the Apache toward their female captives is primal and masochistic. Lily is force-fed dirt. A captor is trampled by a stampeding horse. It's a bleak, adult approach to the material we might not expect from Howard, who is maturing as a filmmaker but still has room for growth.
Now don't go missing on us.
Run time: 137 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 26th November 2003
Box Office USA: $26.8M
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Revolution Studios, Daniel Ostroff Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Fresh: 100 Rotten: 71
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Ken Kaufman
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones, Cate Blanchett as Maggie Gilkeson, Evan Rachel Wood as Lilly Gilkeson, Jenna Boyd as Dot Gilkeson, Aaron Eckhart as Brake Baldwin, Val Kilmer as Lt. Jim Ducharme, Sergio Calderón as Emiliano, Eric Schweig as Pesh-Chidin / El Brujo, Steve Reevis as Two Stone, Jay Tavare as Kayitah, Simon Baker as Honesco, Kayitah's son, Ray McKinnon as Russell J. Wittick, Max Perlich as Isaac Edgerly, Ramon Frank as Grummond, Deryle J. Lujan as Naazhaao / 'Hunter'
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