Ron Howard has directed a variety of movies that make it hard to peg him down. The movies are all over the place in terms of time and place setting, but maybe more than anything else Howard has focused on period pieces from Cinderella Man to Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and several more. But as wide-ranging as his films has been, he's only done one western, 2003's The Missing.
This is a movie that struggled in theaters -- making about $30 million in the U.S. -- while receiving some lukewarm reviews from critics. It's a difficult one to put into any sort of category because it features so many different elements from old west mysticism to an estranged family working together after years apart. The movie was shot on location in New Mexico and is the better for it. If we were judging on the look of a movie alone, this would have been a huge critical and box office success. You get the sense of a journey through the wilderness, but then you keep on traveling. A story that at times doesn't move along too fast clocks in at 137 minutes. Potential? Sure, but it's hard to find at times.
Living in 1885 New Mexico with her daughters Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and younger Dot (Jenna Boyd), single mother and "healer" Maggie (Cate Blanchett) have a tough life but a good life. One day Maggie's estranged father Sam (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on their doorstep having abandoned Maggie and her mother and siblings as a child to live with an Apache tribe. She wants nothing to do with him at all, but when Lilly is abducted by a gang of renegade Apache scouts she has no one else to turn to. With Dot along, Maggie and Sam ride south tracking the gang, hoping to catch up before they can cross the border into Mexico where all the women/girls kidnapped along the way will be sold to the highest bidder.
At its most traditional, 'Missing' deals with a kidnapping plot that has been used fairly often within the western genre. There are good guys and there are bad guys, the lines pretty clearly dividing them with no middle ground. The added element of an estranged father trying to fix a rift between himself and his daughter works surprisingly well if at times unnecessary. We've got a band of murdering Apaches selling women, and Blanchett's Maggie still shoots daggers at Jones' Sam whenever she gets a chance. Thankfully this isn't pushed down our throats with Sam admitting he's not looking for forgiveness, he just wanted to explain himself. Helping bring back his granddaughter though is his chance at redemption, and he's going to take it.
Where that part could have been overdone and obnoxious, the two stars just don't let it happen. Jones doesn't push it too far, and Blanchett is able to reel it in instead of being a stark, raving lunatic. This is Tommy Lee Jones' movie with a quiet, understated performance. After years away from his family, he just wants to explain himself and all his actions (or lack of) over the years. He's a very capable man on the trail and isn't going to let anything slow him down along the way. Other than my issue with so many foreign actors starring in westerns, Blanchett's part as Maggie is very strong. Anytime a female character in a western can be a strong woman capable of handling herself, I'm all for it. Other supporting parts include Val Kilmer as a cavalry officer, Aaron Eckhart as Brake, a ranchhand and Maggie's live-in boyfriend, and Jay Tavare as Katiyah, an Apache working with Sam.
For a movie that is basically one long chase, the story tends to drag in certain places. Most of that can be chalked up to the story's reliance on Indian/Apache mysticism with a hint of witchcraft thrown in. The leader of the renegade Apaches is called El Brujo (Eric Schweig) which Sam translates as 'an Indian witch.' The character is able to put curses on people, seems to have some link to evil and the devil, and has an all-knowing feel that he's aware of everything. His look alone is scary, and he's a more than capable villain on his own. The story would have been just right with him as a renegade Apache looking for blood and money without the mysticism and voodoo. Cut those segments out, and you've got a more mainlined 100-120 minute movie.
Working with this story with so many different elements, Howard never gets graphic in his depictions of wild west violence, but he always is able to paint a picture of what's happening. Sometimes not seeing the violence is more effective than seeing it. We know what's going on, and actually witnessing it would be overkill. That said, the last 30 minutes is full of action that makes up for some of the movie's slower portions. Like most of the rest of the movie, the ending doesn't preach or make any sort of judgment, it just ends. It is an uneven movie, but with enough positive elements to recommend it.
The Missing <----trailer (2003): ** 1/2 /****