The Missing: Suspense On The Frontier
Posted by Jules Brenner on Dec 1, 2003 - 1:52:00 PM
Director: Ron Howard Producer(s): Brian Grazer Screenwriter(s): Thomas Eidson (novel), Ken Kaufman (screenplay) Stars: Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Jenna Boyd, Rachel Evan Wood, Eric Schweig Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino MPAA Rating: R Release: November 26, 2003, Columbia Pictures (U.S.) Running time: 130 Minutes
LOS ANGELES—This powerful western drama is an effective reminder of how important it is to match the good guys and the bad. Dramatic force is only as gripping as the level of that opposition. The elemental matchup in this thriller steeped in naturalism makes it a major accomplishment from all creative contributors. Its steady suspense might well make it a serious contender for this year's Best Picture award.
Stalwart frontier homemaker Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), mother to two girls, lover to ranch hand Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), scraps out a living as a "healer" to all inhabitants of the plains within a wide radius: white man, Indian, Mexican alike. One day, a lone rider appears at her ranch, identifying himself as Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) seeking her care. He has the garb and manner of the Indian but he's clearly white, which is part of the reason his presence is greatly upsetting to Maggie.
It's quickly revealed that he's the father who abandoned her and her family to go off into the wilderness where he lived among the Indians and took an Indian wife—too much bad blood for Maggie to forgive or to accomodate. After he has a brief, violent squabble with Brake and ranch hand Emiliano (Sergio Calderon), she orders him off her land.
While young Dot (Jenna Boyd) is a daughter any struggling mother would be proud of, what with her feisty capability and intense loyalty, older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) is another matter. She's the family rebel, disobedient and complaining, pining for city attractions over slavish needs of the ranch and household. When Brake volunteers to take Lily on a shopping mission to the city with Emiliano, her teenage heart is finally happy.
But the group doesn't return that night and, when there's no sign of them by dawn, Maggie and Dot set out to investigate. What they find is tragedy, Brake and Emiliano dead in an abandoned encampment, Lily missing. They rush into town to seek help from Sheriff Purdy (Clint Howard) and the Army, only to discover Jones in jail for drunkenness and the Army going the wrong way in pursuit of a band of deserters who have been collecting teenage women for trade across the border in Mexico.
Distraught beyond her capability to bear, she strikes a deal with her personal devil, her estranged father, to help her track down this criminal pack led by the brutal Chidin (Eric Schweig), an Apache medicine man of great evil. This is a character with the look and soul of a jackal. (His genuine scariness, mortal and mystical, makes Freddy and others of the horror genre seem "cartoonish"). The chilling quest to rescue Lily from this demon's clutches takes Maggie, Jones and Dot on a journey of torment, supernatural sickness and offensive strategies that fail as often as they succeed, elevating traditional western fare to a 21st century standard of realism that translates into narrative power.
Following his smash directorial hit, "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), Oklahoma born Ron Howard works from a script by Ken Kaufman who himself worked from the Thomas Eidson novel, "The Last Ride" (a possibly better title). Howard is on the trail here of something big by way of worldwide recognition and award consideration for his masterful mining of a simple story of child rescue for all the emotional depth of the individuals caught within its courageous pursuits. While another director might have gone for the elemental saga of the Western, Howard keeps the proportions far more effective by maintaining a human scale.
The immense hurts and grievances that form the relationship between daughter Maggie and father Samuel permeates the hunt, allowing a process of healing and understanding. Jones and Blanchett have rarely turned in more fiercely realized characters balancing need against condemnation, allowing hardened scars to soften, if not disappear.
In a moment that tells much about character and human nature, when their rescue attempt is thwarted and the anguish of failure is unavoidable, Jones suggests that Blanchett take her one surviving daughter and go home.
Releasing herself from one daughter will ensure the survival of the other, he posits. After a moment exploring her soul, she says, "I don't know how to do that." And the desperate mission continues.
Jenna Boyd ("The Hunted") turns in an astonishing performance as younger daughter Dot. This 10 year old from Texas takes the screen from her commanding co-stars with an exquisitely tuned assertive force rarely seen or written for her age group. In range and presence throughout this struggle she mirrors her mother's grit and is nothing less than magnetic, silently watchful, nervily protective. Put her on your list of talents to watch. It's by no act of mere serendipity that this is her 4th feature film.
Val Kilmer is good as a less than admirable Army general. Aaron Eckhart is solid as the man who would marry Maggie if she'd allow it. Jay Tavare is on the mark as the reasonable Indian ally Kayitah. Eric Schweig is outstanding as the horrendous Chidin. This fine actor's ability to convey predatory evil is a major part of the film's unrelaxed hold.
If there are negatives, it's for Blanchett's chic wardrobe that seems to remain dust-free and finely textured out in the New Mexico badlands of 1885, and for one rescue attempt sequence too many, risking the fatigue brought on by over-length. Jules Brenner has reviewed over 80 films a year since 2000. Check out any of the 250+ reviews at his web site where he writes under the pen name, The Filmiliar Cineaste: