Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Aaron Eckhart, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker, Sergio Calderon. (2003, R, 130 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 28, 2003
It somehow feels right that the actor-turned-director Ron Howard, who co-starred in John Wayne’s final movie, The Shootist, helms this new Western. Not only is there the matter of cultural legacy, but also the underlying knowledge that The Missing turns out to be the movie Howard made instead of directing The Alamo, the much-storied epic that was filmed this year in the Austin area. Although Howard’s parting from The Alamo was amicable and due to differences in matters regarding tone and budget, it’s clear from The Missing that ideas about the Old West were still rattling around in Howard’s head. He puts them to good use in The Missing, a tough family drama and action film set in the American Southwest circa 1885. It’s impossible not to notice in The Missing a touch of The Searchers, John Ford and John Wayne’s indelible Western about an ex-soldier who spends years tracking his young niece who was abducted by Indians. In The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones plays a man coincidentally named Jones, who long ago became estranged from his family when he left the community of white settlers and "went Indian." After a couple of decades living among the Apache, Jones returns to visit his grown daughter Maggie (Blanchett), but she is bitter about the past and steadfastly rejects her father’s reappearance in her life and his attempt to woo her with cash. Maggie is an interesting character and certainly a rarity in classic Westerns. She is a doctor and a single woman with two daughters by two different fathers, who also has a conjugal yet unmarried relationship with a man (Eckhart) who makes it clear that the choice not to marry is not his. It is only after a crisis during which Maggie’s older daughter Lilly (Wood) is abducted by a band of outlaws led by Pesh-Chidin (Schweig), a psychopathic killer with mystical powers, that Maggie relents and accepts the assistance of her father. And even then, she takes his help only because the U.S. army (led by Val Kilmer in an extended, uncredited cameo) is unwilling to help her search for her daughter. The cast is uniformly terrific: Blanchett as a frontier woman with real grit, Jones as the ineffable "stranger" teetering between two cultures, and Schweig as the truly scary brujo who’s heading to Mexico to sell his stolen white girls into sexual slavery. The movie loses some of its momentum due to some obvious instances of foreshadowing and a couple of unnecessary forays into magic and mysticism, which only makes the point that whether you wear beads or a cross around your neck, these items are but cultural totems. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino makes great use of the wide screen to relate the area’s desolation and the distances among characters. But this effect may also be disconcerting to some viewers who find unresolved issues to be unsettling. Ron Howard, however, has delivered a movie that’s a big departure from his recent films. We may not remember him for The Alamo, but we're glad he kept the Stetson.