The Missing (2003)

Directed by Ron Howard

With a gathering of talent like director Ron Howard and actors Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, you would expect the end result to be pretty darn good. And the movie The Missing is pretty darn good though it does have its problems, the biggest of which may be its length.

For myself, the length of a movie is irrelevant – it can be under 90 minutes long or it can run well over three hours. The problem arises when a film, regardless of its actual length, seems long. In other words, its the perception.

When it seems long, it is because it means we’re somehow not engaged as completely as we should be. This is where The Missing has a problem.

Because of where and when the story is set, The Missing appears at first glance to be a western. It’s story even suggests western with its surface similarities to older movies like John Ford’s The Searchers.

Cate Blanchett as Magdalena Gilkeson and Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones.

But with its approach, themes and cinematography, it’s much more modern.

It’s as much a thriller as anything else. This may be one of the reasons it seems long – it appears to be several kinds of movies at once.

Maggie (Blanchett), a single mother of two daughters, works a farm in New Mexico. She’s also a “healer,” providing basic frontier medical help to the people in the area she lives.

One day a man who appears to be native arrives (Jones). It turns out he is her father. He wants to reconcile with her over their past but she rejects him and sends him on his way. (The woman’s background, which we learn as the movie progresses, explains this as it also explains her stoic, hard character.)

Some time after he goes, her daughters and several of the farm’s hands go out to attend to the cattle. They never return. Maggie goes to find out what happened and discovers a horrific scene.

Grief stricken Magdalena Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett).

She finds her youngest daughter but she learns quickly that the eldest daughter has been taken to be sold into prostitution in Mexico.

She’s forced to accept the aid her father can provide and so she, her daughter and her father set out to find the “missing” daughter.

This kidnapping aspect, and Maggie’s determination to recover her daughter, are slightly similar to Ford’s The Searchers. But where The Searchers is essentially a revenge tale told in the format of a quest, and is informed to a degree by the main character’s racism, The Missing is more about reconciliations, particularly between father and daughter.

And while there is some racism in Blanchett’s character, Maggie, it is nowhere near the key plot device it is in The Searchers. Here, racism is simply a way to illustrate how she feels about her father.

Where the movie bogs down is in attempting to do several things at once. It wants to show strong women within the context of the harsh realities of the early American west. It wants to present native Americans in a realistic fashion. It wants to be a thriller that, in a sense, riffs on western themes and settings. It also wants to be a bit mystical with its use of native American spirituality.

Taking on all these subjects slows down the film’s narrative. It seems to lose its focus in places.

Tommy Lee Jones is Samuel Jones / Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan.

The spirituality aspect seems particularly ill-considered. It’s hinted at in the first act, used in part to develop Tommy Lee Jones’ character.

It becomes a more pronounced part in the second act where it’s used as an aspect of the native kidnapper Chidin, and also as a tool for Blanchett’s character arc.

In fact, in the second act of the film it appears to become a key, if not the key element of the story.

And then in the third act – poof! – it’s gone. It’s kind of used the way plants are as accessories to rooms. It provides colour and contrast but has no real importance to the story, though its use misleads us into thinking it does. It provides a fantastic, spiritual aspect, especially in the second act, and then is dropped for the film’s realism.

The movie actually begins with austere realism, weaves into a fantastic quality, then jumps back to its original realism. A bit confusing, to say the least.

Magdalena Gilkeson with her children.

Although Roger Ebert was bothered by what he perceived as the film’s awkward political correctness (and there is certainly some of this in the film), I found I didn’t really notice it – not like I did in, say, Whale Rider. But I do think the movie’s earnest intent to take on several issues and/or subjects, clutters it and creates a sense of extreme length.

Having said all this, however, I did enjoy the movie. The performances of all the actors were extremely good.

Blanchett and Jones don’t appear capable of giving bad performances, and the young women who played the daughters, Evan Rachel Wood as Lily and Jenna Boyd as Dot, really helped to anchor the movie’s credibility.

(We even get an appearance from Val Kilmer as a muddled army lieutenant.)

The cinematography is also wonderful. I don’t recall having seen a western, or western-informed, film with quite such a look. It’s oddly both stark and austere while also being brilliant. When colour is in a scene, it’s vibrant. Generally, clothes and background are more somber, earth tones. Yet everything stands out in great contrast. There are no sepia toned images here to suggest “age.”

Note on the DVD

The image on the disk is crisp, clean, brilliant. It’s very good. As for the special features, this is one of the better discs to get. While there is no commentary, the featurettes are numerous and almost all are focused on director Ron Howard.

He provides a great deal of insight into the film, his intentions, his experience with westerns and thoughts on westerns generally.

And nothing about special effects. (It’s not a special effects movie but I throw that last in because I’m am so tired of DVD features that go on and on about how they did special effects without providing any information about the story and the choices made.)

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