An uncommonly astringent Western of ghastly violence, beastly crimes and unforgivable betrayals. Ron Howard has never before made a picture this raw and alive. A fundamentally grim and unpleasant experience, which will likely combine with qualified positive critical reaction and word-of-mouth to keep B.O. to a moderate level.

“The Missing” is an uncommonly astringent Western, a harsh account of ghastly violence, beastly crimes, unforgivable betrayals and the sheer difficulty of life on the frontier. As hard as it may be to reconcile this as the work of the same director who made “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the fact remains that Ron Howard has never before made a picture this raw and alive. At the same time, this tale of the desperate pursuit of the kidnappers of young women makes for a fundamentally grim and unpleasant experience, which will likely combine with qualified positive critical reaction and word-of-mouth to keep B.O. to a moderate level.

Taking the emotional temperature of this film and assessing the director’s newly acquired toughness makes one wish Howard had been able to make “The Alamo”; it was after departing that project that he took on “The Missing.” Albeit admittedly outfitted with strong production values and abundant means, the picture still has the urgency of a venture quickly undertaken and made while the iron’s hot, not fussed over endlessly.

Although the script by Ken Kaufman (“Muppets From Space,” “Space Cowboys”) is based on “The Last Ride,” a 1995 novel by Thomas Eidson that is part of a trilogy about Western women, the story –from a film buff p.o.v. –feels like a reworking of John Ford’s 1956 “The Searchers,” in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards rescued his teenage niece from her Apache abductors.

The kidnapping — by an Indian “witch” and his mixed-race gang — of an adolescent girl similarly provides the dramatic trigger in “The Missing,” but the emotional dynamic is invested with a rich new dimension by the nature of the pursuers’ relationship. In the New Mexico Territory in 1885, Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is raising her daughters, early teen Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and 10-ish Dot (Jenna Boyd) on a remote ranch. Working the land with the help of b.f. Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), Maggie also provides rudimentary medical service to the local natives.

But Maggie’s self-perception as a Christian woman willing to help anyone in need hits its limit with the arrival of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who looks like an old Indian but whom she instantly recognizes as her father. To Brake’s astonishment, Maggie refuses to give shelter to the craggy, windblown man, who says he needs doctoring. Instead, she spews invective, saying she’s considered Jones a dead man since he abandoned his family and “went Indian” 20 years earlier, and blaming him for her mother’s death before she sends him away.

The fierce personality with which Blanchett endows Maggie from the outset paints the character’s rejection of her father as irrevocable. This emotional absolutism, combined with Jones’ admission of his sins, makes all the more potent their necessary reunion shortly thereafter.

When Brake and the two girls fail to return one night after a day’s ride, Maggie sets out after them, only to make a horrifying discovery in the woods: Brake has been butchered and Lilly is missing. The only mollifying news is that Dot is alive, and seemingly unharmed.

Appealing to authorities to go after the perpetrators, Maggie is rebuffed, and so must turn for help to Jones, the only man who knows both the territory and Indian ways.

So the pair, accompanied by little Dot, a game girl who will not be left behind, set out after the marauders, who, it soon becomes known, are scouring the countryside for virginal white girls to sell in Mexico. Once the ringleader, a vicious and hideously ugly sorcerer named Chidin (Eric Schweig), gets his group across the border, the girls will be gone forever, Jones warns, so time is of the essence and any reservations Maggie may have about trusting her father will have to be put aside.

Everything about the way the action is presented through this early section contributes to a sense of unease. The wintry weather keeps changing, people come and go without warning, and the constantly shifting perspectives afforded by Salvatore Totino’s deliberately unstable widescreen camerawork provoke a heightened nervousness justified by unfolding events. The characters are, if not entirely at the mercy of the elements, at least severely buffeted by them.

For all his expertise as a tracker, Jones is almost strung up by an Army unit (led by a lieutenant played in an extended cameo by Val Kilmer) when he’s found in a house that’s been sacked by Chidin and then, ironically, can’t name the granddaughter he claims he’s looking for.

Shortly thereafter, he forges an alliance with an old friend from his Apache days, Kayitah (Jay Tavare), as well as the latter’s son Honesco (Simon Baker), whose bride-to-be has been taken off by the witch.

The film presents arresting incidents as it cross-cuts between pursuers and the pursued — a flash flood nearly sweeps Maggie and her companions to their deaths, the young women are treated hideously by their captors even as Lilly, in particular, watches for her chance to escape — but it loses some force and uniqueness as it drives with increasing conventionality toward the climax. A crucial trick Jones plays on his opponents seems hokey and unconvincing. Just as unfortunately, mystical mumbo-jumbo is introduced, as Chidin puts a hex on Maggie and leaves rattlesnakes hanging in his wake.

To be sure, the conflict between the two sides eventually becomes very bloody, and the rapprochement between Maggie and her father is only tentative, not back-slappingly embraced in typical Hollywood fashion. In the end, though, it all goes on too long — pic would have been ideal at about two hours — and it’s capped by Blanchett paying direct homage to “The Searchers,” with her final line virtually identical to JohnWayne’s.

But while “The Missing” isn’t fully or ideally realized, it still offers a stark, often disturbing vision of the Old West, one in which brutality and pain is are palpable parts of everyday life and not just things that happen to soldiers, cowboys, Indians and bad guys. Howard establishes an often uncomfortably close connection to the story’s disagreeable incidents, one that may prove difficult for many viewers. But the approach once again proves that the Western genre, in the broadest sense, remains fertile ground for dramatic, thematic and emotional exploration.

The performances contribute mightily in elevating the film to an estimable level. Blanchett is impressive as the principled, steely woman whose refuses to consider her moral rectitude blemished by living in sin and having an illegitimate child. Jones’ work here ranks with his best; his face so deeply lined and defined that it looks like it belongs on a mountain or at least a coin, he provides his wanderer with distressed, haunted eyes that speak volumes about this man’s experiences and regrets in life.

Tavare warms matters up as Jones’ old acquaintance, who has a good perspective on the man’s strengths and weaknesses, while Schweig is terrifying as the psychotic kidnapper. Wood and Boyd, the latter looking like a pint-sized Kyra Sedgwick, are fine as the two daughters.

In addition to Totino’s enormously resourceful lensing, tech qualities are rough ‘n’ ready.

The Missing

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Revolution Studios and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production in association with Daniel Ostroff Prods. Produced by Grazer, Ostroff, Ron Howard. Executive producers, Todd Hallowell, Steve Crystal. Coproducers, Thomas Eidson, Sue Berger Ramin. Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay, Ken Kaufman, based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Arriflex Cameras widescreen), Salvatore Totino; editors, Dan Hanley, Mike Hill; music, James Horner; visual consultant, Merideth Boswell; art director, Guy Barnes; set designer, James Oberlander; set decorator, Wendy Ozols-Barnes; costume designer, Julie Weiss; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Bayard Carey; supervising sound mixers, Chris Jenkins, Frank Montano; supervising sound editor, Chic Ciccolini III; special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain; visual effects supervisor, Joel Hynek; visual effects, Pacific Title, & Company, Custom Film Effects; associate producers, Louisa Velis, Aldric La'auli Porter, Kathleen McGill; second unit director, Todd Hallowell; second unit camera, Keith Peterman; stunt coordinator, Walter Scott; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson. Reviewed at the Directors Guild of America, Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2003. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 135 MIN. (English, Chiricahua, Spanish dialogue.)

With

Samuel Jones - Tommy Lee Jones Maggie Gilkeson - Cate Blanchett Chidin - Eric Schweig Lilly Gilkeson - Evan Rachel Wood Dot Gilkeson - Jenna Boyd Two Stone - Steve Reevis Russell J. Wittick - Ray McKinnon Lt. Jim Ducharme - Val Kilmer Brake Baldwin - Aaron Eckhart Honesco - Simon Baker Kayitah - Jay Tavare Emiliano - Sergio Calderon Sheriff Purdy - Clint Howard Anne - Elisabeth Moss Isaac Edgerly - Max Perlich
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