February 2, 2003
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer, Sergio Calderón, Eric Schweig, Steve Reevis, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker, Ray McKinnon, Max Perlich, Ramon Frank, Deryle J. Lujan, ,
When Cate Blanchett’s daughter is kidnapped she must team up with estranged father Tommy Lee Jones in this slow-burning Western.
Ron Howard is as close to Hollywood royalty as you can get. Both his parents were actors, he starred in iconic 50’s sit-com Happy Days and went on to be a successful director in his own right. But whereas once he was known for safe, feel-good family fare like Splash or Apollo 13, these days he seems to be taking on more edgier, diverse projects. His latest, The Missing, is possibly his darkest film yet and is all the better for it.
Forgiving the whole A Beautiful Mind scandal at the Oscars (Best Picture? Really?), Howard is at least one of the few big directors who are still more interested in character and story over special effects. And it’s this tact that probably reassured the folks at Columbia-Tri Star that such an old-fashioned Western would be safe in his hands (it also doesn’t hurt if you have Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones as your leads).
The plot is simple: Long lost father (a grisly old tracker) comes to visit his daughter Maggie and is promptly told to get back on his pony. Then Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily is kidnapped by a dangerous ‘witch’ who is acquiring girls to sell and, since the authorities aren’t interested, she swallows her pride and asks her father to help her rescue the girl. If the story is low on plot, it’s certainly rich on character and has a couple of neat twists along the way. Characters exist rather than are bluntly introduced fully-formed, and Howard lets things happen at a natural pace, never rushing to the next action scene. This restraint pays off later with subtle reveals about the history between the estranged father-daughter relationship that unattentive viewers may miss altogether.
There are even some genuinely funny moments (mostly thanks to the deadpan delivery that served Jones so well in Men In Black) but for the most part this is a down and dirty western that is as grisly as it is beautiful to look at. Every shot would look at home framed on your wall…at home…and the mixture of old and new cinematography styles work well. CGI is present (especially during a rampaging flood) but it’s used fleetingly so if the film stretches the rules of the western genre, it never actually breaks them.
Val Kilmer has a small part as an amoral US Marshall, briefly reuniting him with his Batman co-star Tommy Lee Jones and delivering the best action scene of the film, but this is no John Woo bullet-fest. Action junkies will be bored to tears. But if you have the patience and the pleasant nostalgia of watching old Clint Eastwood movies on TV as a kid, this is perhaps the best western we’ve had in the last decade (tying with the eerily-timed release of Kevin Costner’s ‘Open Range’). Blanchett is predictably strong in the acting department but it’s Jones who steals the show. His weathered face and gruff delivery are gold for this genre.
Brilliant stuff then, but all isn’t quite perfect. At times the supernatural element becomes plain silly (an injured Jones asks a hawk to show him the way home) and it’s hard to sympathise for Lily, who comes off early on as being dull and shallow. The Missing is also too long, even for a western, but the performances and the direction are faultless. A stronger ending would have raised it to classic status, but this is still a rewarding experience.
A woefully thin set of extras include deleted scenes, two alternate endings (both long and…well, just long really) and a blooper reel that has all the cock-ups you’d expect whilst making a western; hats are blown off, horses don’t co-operate etc. The highlight here are some early Ron Howard home movies that show even at a young age he could frame a decent shot. The bonus features, or lack thereof, lower the quality a bit but as they say: you’re buying the DVD for the film itself.