Fresh off the success of his psychological thriller “A Beautiful Mind,” pop director Ron Howard tries his luck with another genre: the Western. While the setting of “The Missing” may be different from those of his past films, it has all the trappings of a typical mediocre mainstream Howard film, giving us a combination of action, adventure and values in a paint-by-numbers plot. That being said, his formula hasn’t run out of steam yet, and, with stellar performances by Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, “The Missing” turns out to be a barrel of fun, albeit one we’ve all seen the bottom of before.
It is 1885. New Mexico is a dangerous, wild place, and Maggie Gilkeson (Blanchett) and her two daughters live right in the center of it. Maggie is a doctor, tending to whoever comes out of the nearby woods. Her eldest daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) doesn’t like working in the harsh conditions of her mother’s ranch and wants to leave. This “Little House on the Prairie” motif quickly vanishes when a man who looks like a Native American shows up to be treated. He turns out to be Maggie’s vagabond father Samuel Jones (Jones), who abandoned his family long ago, married a Native American and discarded his white ways. Maggie never forgot his departure and sends him away. Shortly thereafter, Lilly is kidnapped, and the action of the movie begins as Maggie finds Jones and goes after her daughter.
From the get-go, Jones’s quiet, nuanced performance fills the lonely landscape. He echoes the cliffs and the trees, filled with sadness caused by his estrangement from the loss of his place in his family and the world. He is a man repenting, and his eyes show it. Even while delivering lines like, “I asked you if you wanted some sage put on your fish,” Jones never wavers in intensity. When he is silent, his silence is not that of nobility but that of weariness. It is the silence of a disgraced loser. Even his Indian name pegs him as unlucky.
Blanchett’s Maggie is a perfect foil for her father by rebelling against him and fighting against the land. She is tough and brave, but not enlightened as Jones is. Yet the same sadness is in her eyes — she wanted a father to raise her and she didn’t get one. The first conversations between her and Jones are reminiscent of a shoot-out, but slowly she lowers her defenses. She eventually welcomes her father as a friend, but only that — he has lost the opportunity to be more.
Unfortunately, most of Jones and Blanchett’s acting is done between the lines as the script, written by Ken Kaufman, is so sloppy it could have been penned by another Kaufman, the fictitious Donald of “Adaptation” fame. Conflicts such as those between Lilly and her mother are introduced before dropping off the face of the film entirely, while other things are never even explained. The last third of “The Missing” finally transcends these problems to generate real excitement and surprise. However, the first two-thirds of the movie are so formulaic that most of the enjoyment comes from watching Salvatore Totino’s cinematography.
The New Mexican landscape is inherently beautiful and spiritual, allowing for a communion with nature that cannot take place in the dreary East. Totino takes advantage of this by allowing the landscape to breathe through his simple camera work. He uses a wide shot wherever he can to capture the true sense of the place. Under his careful guidance, we see a horse gallop ominously through the fog, the ruins of an Indian pueblo in the rising sun, and a pirouetting windmill. All of these scenes are helped by excellent lighting design that replicates perfectly the colors of the dusk and dawn of the desert.
Strangely, Howard manages to incorporate even bio-terrorism into his movie. An evil Native American brujo (witch) in the film kills his victims with special powders that cause an effect identical to the Ebola virus. But outside of this mystical allusion to current events, most of the action is conventional and old fashioned, with simple gun battles that manage to raise suspense. Working without any explosions or high tech weaponry, Howard generates realistic fighting sequences that engage and excite with their uncertainty; because of the inaccuracy of the weapons, no shot is guaranteed to hit its mark.
Howard is moving in the right direction on his way into the sunset, exploring family relationships with a dark undercurrent not seen in his other work — now he just needs to let go of his “Happy Days” sincerity and try to make an original movie. After all, a director is only allowed one “Grinch.”
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