The Missing Review
New Mexico, late nineteenth century. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is bringing up two teenage daughters on her own. One day Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives: he’s Maggie’s estranged father, desperate to reconcile with his daughter. Then one day both daughters disappear. Dot (Jenna Boyd), the younger, is found but Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) is still missing. She’s been kidnapped by Apaches who intend to take her south of the Mexican border and sell her into prostitution. Maggie and Samuel put aside their differences and go in search of her.
Ron Howard is a hard director to pin down as, undoubted technical competence apart, his films are so various. Many of the time he’s a mainstream entertainer in the Spielberg mould, often inclined to sentimentality. Yet every so often, he makes something rather darker and edgier: Ransom (though you have to give Richard Price some credit for his contributions to the script), to some extent The Paper and now The Missing. Clearly, family and its defence is a preoccupation, done comically in Parenthood, but deadly seriously in Ransom and here. The Missing isn’t remotely sentimental, not with hints early on that Samuel may have murdered his own grandchildren. Even so, there’s such a huge gulf between this and The Grinch that it’s difficult to credit that the same man directed both.
The Missing is a western with echoes of earlier ones, most notably The Searchers and Unforgiven. Howard’s film (screenplay by Ken Kaufman from a Thomas Edison novel) shares with the latter its classical pacing, taking its time to establish characters, situation and place before the plot kicks in. The action scenes are taut and sometimes brutally violent. Cate Blanchett doesn’t play Maggie for easy sympathy, more as a lioness fiercely defending her cubs. Tommy Lee Jones is rather more low-key than usual in an ambiguous role, a man who has done bad things and knows it, but is not incapable of good. There is strong support from the two young girls and Aaron Eckhart makes an impression in a smaller role. Salvatore Totino’s camerawork captures the dirty, gritty side of the Old West, without undue prettification.
Overlooked in the Oscar race, The Missing is one of Howard’s best films. He should visit his dark side more often.