November 25th, 2003
Though far from his best work, Ron Howard’s “The Missing” is a daring step forward for a filmmaker so used to big audience-pleasing movies and warm performances. This tale of witchcraft and kidnapping isn’t an easy sit, but it rewards with narrative integrity and glorious New Mexican photography.
In the cold, barren open range of 1885 New Mexico, prairie doctor Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett, in a rock solid performance) tends to her land with daughters Lily (Evan Rachel Wood, “Thirteen”) and Dot (Jenna Boyd, “Dickie Roberts”). When her father, Jones (Tommy Lee Jones, reliable, but trying to soften his natural orneriness) arrives at the homestead one day after decades of absence spent with an Apache tribe, Maggie isn’t emotionally ready for a reunion. But when a psychopathic Native American witch named Chidin (Eric Schwig, “Skins”) kidnaps Lily, looking to sell her in Mexico, Maggie must turn to her estranged tracker father to bring the child home again.
While director Ron Howard is no stranger to dark material (“Ransom”), he’s best known for his uplifting films that fill the heart with joy, and also happen to make gobs and gobs of money in the process (“The Grinch,” “Apollo 13”). But every decade, Howard decides to take a walk on the wild side and delve into material that clearly deviates from his normal routine. “The Missing” is probably Howard’s moodiest, most bleak film to date, filled with suicides, infant deaths, murders, and brutal moments of captivity. It’s a quasi western/black magic/kidnapping/relationship film that defies most explanations, but in all the good ways. The film also features a slightly un-PC, but historically accurate depiction of the volatile relationship between the Native Americans and the imposing European Americans, to make the tension even more uncomfortable.
I wouldn’t say that “The Missing” is Howard’s best work in recent years, but it is his most ambitious, and that’s a celebratory event all on its own. After hitting box office gold, as well as Oscar gold, with 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” Howard has bravely retreated from the warm fuzzies and stories of emotional triumph that have served him so well over the years to give us a tale where evil could very well win out in the end. How very un-Ron Howard of him.
Though “The Missing” takes on familiar elements found in classic stories of Western reconciliation and retrieval (shades of “The Searchers”), the film is more a tale of mysticism and witchcraft, which is odd to describe in what seems on the surface to be a simple western. But there is a dark vibe running through the film. Howard shows in detail the alchemy of Chidin; hanging rattlesnakes from trees to drain their venom for his weapons, using hair from a brush to weave spells, and blowing unidentified powders in victim’s faces to bring them to their knees. It’s a combination of the traditional Hollywood exploration of Native American superstition and some truly twisted, macabre material (think human hearts buried in the sand), making the threat of Chidin (nicely played by Eric Schweig) very menacing and real. Howard spends a lot of the running time making sure the audience is cognizant of Chidin’s powers, which doesn’t benefit the film’s pacing. At 130 minutes, “The Missing” is far too long and a tinge bloated to be effective in the way Howard intends, and the intense concentration on the magical fringes of the narrative is the main culprit.
Shot on location in New Mexico, “The Missing” is customarily gorgeous for a western. Photographed by Salvatore Totino (“Changing Lanes”), oaters have the benefit of wide opens spaces and prairie sunshine, but there is crispness to the look of “The Missing. “ There is a gorgeous clarity to the Southwest winter visuals - along with some post-production tinkering with the colors - that does its job to crank up the urgency of the drama. The film might be tough storywise to watch, but in a pure Western sense, “The Missing” is fantastic to observe.
When “The Missing” is in full adventure mode, it’s some of the best work Ron Howard has put up on the screen to date. This is a bold film for Howard (especially for a Thanksgiving release), and even though it gets sidetracked from time to time, the authority of the filmmaker’s commitment to this nightmarish tale is laudable, and often results in a rewarding motion picture.
My rating: B