Directed: Ron Howard
Genre: Action, Adventure, Westerns
In 19th-century New Mexico, a father (Tommy Lee Jones) comes back home, hoping to reconcile with his adult daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett). Maggie's daughter is kidnapped, forcing father and estranged daughter to work together to get her back.
Much like The Searchers, The Missing is an adventure tale interlaced with relationships that will attempt to reconcile beliefs while reuniting a family. There’s an ominous, cold tone present in every frame that puts us in touch with their passage through both the landscape and an ever-growing thirst for blood. Maggie and Samuel’s voyage is intercut with that of the mixed clan of Indians and white men whose quest for money supercedes any of the oaths or religious aspirations they may have followed at one time.
Howard does such a tremendous job with establishing the evil and one-upping their own nefarious actions with every scene, that the audience abandons all notions of forgive-and-forget and wants to see a comeuppance of biblical proportions. The screenplay doesn’t paint this as a morality play with gray areas stormclouding the issue. Kidnapping and selling girls for profit – bad. Mother and grandfather exorcising their right to protect their own – good. And I’m fine with that since sometimes things are just that black-and-white.
But that same bloodlust, driven by my increasing disgust for the vile Chidin (Eric Schweig) and the men whom he rides with, led me to underwhelming satisfaction with its conclusion. Perhaps that’s not Howard’s fault as I’m accustomed to wanting great villains like these (and boy, are they) punished in such a way that the landlords of Dante’s Inferno would wince at my ideas of revenge. For more than two solid acts, a powerhouse finale was imminent and deserved. When it arrives though, it can’t possibly live up to what is truly deserved by these men (save for one tremendous leap of faith) and doesn’t adrenalize like Wayne’s charge through the Indian village nearly 50 years ago nor even the gun battle in Kevin Costner’s Open Range earlier this year. Maybe it’s just me though since its still a satisfying conclusion that we’re guided towards through a checklist of great performances.
Cate Blanchett shines far greater here than in the lackluster Veronica Guerin just last month and if you’ve somehow disregarded how masterfully she can command the screen, then look no further. Several scenes have “Oscar clip” written all over them (and I’m calling a nomination here), but Blanchett never overplays the moment, getting you in touch with what a strong woman this is who isn’t out trying to prove it. Tommy Lee Jones, in about his eighth hunter/tracker role in the past decade, hasn’t had one this solid since The Fugitive and he nails it. Eric Schweig isn’t called on much but to look ugly and never smile, but he sold me since his villainous actions speak louder than words. Finally, some special praise is deserved for 10-year old Jenna Boyd for the kind of striking, unforced emotional performance that we remember from the young Natalie Portman.
The Missing truly is one of the year’s great pieces of storytelling and another impressive entry on the resume of Ron Howard. It takes some moxie to dive headfirst into a project that he must be aware will almost force comparison to one of the true masterpieces of the genre. He accomplishes a rare feat by turning the tables away from discussion of a derivative nature and keeping us focused on the story at hand and then later admiring what a solid companion piece it would make. I’m confident that audiences will be along for the ride and likely appreciate the climactic standoff more than I did, which makes what I’ve said faint praise and I still think its one of the year’s great films.