The Missing Movie Review

As a good ol' damsels-in-distress Western with picturesque frontier vistas, a handful of Winchester rifle shootouts and enough character conflict to keep the long horse rides interesting, Ron Howard's "The Missing" is reliable, if over-earnest, matinee fodder.

Unfortunately, the director has his eye on the Oscar, and the strain he puts on a perfectly serviceable story in an attempt to ratchet up the prestige factor makes the movie seem awfully pretentious for a kidnap-and-rescue sagebrush saga.

The always riveting Cate Blanchett perfectly embodies the stamina, bravery and grit of an 1885 frontier woman as Maggie Gilkeson, a widowed mom who has suffered a hard life both with and without husbands and lovers. She has passed on that strength and tenacity to her two daughters -- teenaged beauty Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), snatched by a gang of Indian guides who have rebelled against the deceitful Army, and stubborn, tough young Dot (Jenna Boyd) who steadfastly refuses to be left behind when a pursuit is mounted. ("I won't stay behind," she wails with powerful determination in the picture's most memorable moment. "Wherever you put me, I'll follow you. You know I will!")

When the local sheriff (Howard's brother Clint in his traditional cameo) and a cavalry regiment (commanded by Val Kilmer) prove to be no help, a desperate Maggie resentfully turns to her long-absent father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has just resurfaced to make amends 20 years after abandoning his family to live as an Apache.

The emotional texture of this father-daughter conflict is where Howard gets the idea that there's Academy Award material here. But while regret and hardship seems etched in Jones's crevice visage and Maggie's bitterness comes out brilliantly in Blanchett's body language, steely eyes and low, viscous voice that echoes with lifelong pain, "The Missing" remains at its core a mass-appeal abduction thriller, not unlike the director's 1996 Mel Gibson flick "Ransom" retooled for the Old West.

Based on "The Last Ride" by Tomas Eidson, the film is plied with mystical mumbo jumbo because the cold-blooded leader of the motorcycle-gang-like kidnappers -- who snatch pretty girls from New Mexico and Arizona homesteads to sell as prostitutes in Mexico -- is an ominous medicine man of the dark arts. Decked out in sinister facial scars and rattlesnake hides, he's played with skin-crawling menace by the talented Eric Schwig ("Skins," "The Last of the Mohicans"), but his curses and other supernatural elements of the plot don't quite jive with the core story, which underneath all the machination remains on solid genre footing.

As Jones tracks the kidnappers through canyons, mountains and open ground with daughter and granddaughter in tow, wounds between Maggie and her father are inevitably reopened in scenes that allow these fine actors to engulf themselves in pent-up emotion. The gifted Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen") overcomes the script's attempts to give her kidnapped character a touch of modern teen discontent and turns in a frightened but willful performance as Lilly, who again and again finds the courage to defy her victimization.

And while the movie suffers from a few too many off-the-shelf plot devices -- an Apache pal of Jones's turns up out of the blue at a convenient moment, too many of Lilly's near-escapes are foiled by another captive doing something stupid to draw a guard's attention -- "The Missing" has an emotional authenticity and a period accuracy (realistically portraying prejudice and racial tension between whites and Indians for one thing) that makes up for minor contrivances.

But dropping a few of these devices to tighten up the 130-minute run-time would have made the movie better -- as would embracing the conventional nature of the underlying plot by cutting back on the Oscar posturing. Go into "The Missing" seeking entertainment, not art, and you'll get your money's worth. But if you're interested in a new Western with real weight, track down Kevin Costner's overlooked "Open Range."

Comments

The Missing Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, WIDE: Wednesday, November 26, 2003

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