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The Missing

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
130 min. Columbia. Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart.

When Ron Howard's version of The Alamo--set to star Russell Crowe--fell apart due to budget concerns, Howard licked his wounds and apparently told his agent, bring me the Western scripts. But just as one shouldn't drive angry, one shouldn't make a Western under self-imposed emotional duress. Howard's The Missing may be a sturdy genre picture, but it's often more predictable than inspired: an Old-West Ransom rehash.

In 1885 New Mexico, homesteader Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) doubles as the "local" healer while raising two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd). When her father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up, Maggie reveals a heart full of hate for the man who abandoned her family and broke her mother's spirit. After living with the Apaches for twenty years, Samuel wants reconciliation, but it takes the brutal kidnapping of one of Maggie's daughters to convince her to reconnect, tentatively, with Dad. Father, daughter, and grandaughter saddle up in search of the missing girl, whose savage Apache captors intend to sell her into Mexican slavery (along the way, Samuel's Apache know-how and Apache friends remind us in capital letters that The Indian Way is Actually Noble and Spiritual).

The Missing is based on Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, and Ken Kaufman's naggingly conventional script--intercutting between the heroic pursuers and the demonic captors of the tenacious girl--occasionally breaks through with a bit of zesty talk (oddly, the best dialogue is subtitled), a period detail (like the tendency of enlisted Army men to loot crime scenes), or one of the multiple climaxes designed to sustain the story. These brutal engagements, though a bit rote, goose an otherwise lugubrious redemption story that's redolent of classic Westerns like The Searchers but only sort of deeply felt. The story also pits Blanchett's nature as a "healer" (think she'll reconcile with Jones?) against an injection of magic realism in the form of a brujo's witchcraft: Eric Shweig plays the ornate villain with guttural efficiency.

I suppose it's a backhanded insult to suggest that Howard's problem is that he's too efficient, but that's the feeling I got from The Missing. It's hardly a bad movie; in many ways, it's quite good, with Jones and particularly Blanchett suitable to the milieu. But Howard's self-conscious style comes to the fore just as the themes refuse to stay below ground level. The raw emotions which fuel the opening act--love, hate, and fear--melt quickly into chapter after dutiful chapter, leaving the director to play up a savage intensity to get gut reactions. With his camera placed insistently close to his actors, Howard browbeats us instead of drawing us into the story.

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