December 2003
The Missing

Reviewed by Julian Roman

The Missing
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Producers: Brian Grazer
Screen Writer Ken Kaufman
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Sergio Calderon, & Aaron Eckhart



The Missing is Ron Howard’s best directorial effort yet. He might have won the Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind”, but he really achieves artistic mastery here. His approach is stark, methodical, focused; there is not one wasted scene in this entire film. I am a firm believer of the story being the engine. Forget your actors and their egos, screw the big budget special FX, the story must shape the film. The Missing does not have a complex story or characters. It is simple, cut and dry, to the point. It is a tale of the cruel realities of the old west. Where even on your best day, life was perilous and unfair. Imagine how terrifying your worst day could be. This was the truth of the era. There as adventure, it was an exciting place, but it was also brutally dangerous. Horrifying death, rape, and enslavement could come at any turn. Life was not precious or treated with dignity. Ron Howard has made a film of spectacular realism. It’s a shame he didn’t get to direct The Alamo.
Maggie Gilkeson ( Cate Blanchett) lives on a New Mexico homestead with her daughters, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd). She is a healer trying to survive another harsh winter with her family in 1885. She has two workers to help her with the homestead, Brake (the fantastic Aaron Eckhart) and Emiliano (Sergio Calderone). Their lives are relatively simple, work the land and live on it. Lilly is a feisty teenager who dreams of getting away. She wants a life in a big city, away from gutting deer, far from the frontier. Dot is only ten years old, young and naïve, trying to grasp her surroundings. Brake and Maggie are lovers, but she refuses to marry him. She has a stubborn will about raising her daughters with Christian virtue. Out of the blue, her long estranged father Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) appears on her land. He walked out on her when she was a young girl, damning her to a life of desperation and hardship. He’s slightly injured, but doctoring is not the reason for his visit. Maggie refuses to hear him and after a night of forced hospitality by Brake, sends him on his way. Dot is especially intrigued to find out she has a grandfather. She’s enamored by him, the idea of another authority figure. Jones has no time in his life for the adoration of a child. He leaves without ever stating why he came back.
The following day, Brake, Emiliano, and the girls leave to collect the cattle. They do not return. Maggie waits an entire frightful night before going to find them. Her worst nightmare has come true. Brake and Emiliano are savagely murdered. Lilly has been kidnapped. Only Dot has survived by hiding in the bushes. They race to town to see the local sheriff. He informs them that a band of renegade Indians and whites have been kidnapping young girls across the territory. They plan to sell them as prostitutes in Mexico. Maggie knows that she will never see her daughter again if they make it across the border. The army is pursuing them, but far away and cold on their trail. Jones is in the local jail. He has been locked up for drunkenness. Maggie arranges for his release and he offers to help her find Lilly. This is the set-up, as straightforward as it gets.
It’s important to discuss the bad guys. The kidnappers are lead by a Chindin, an evil Indian medicine man. There is a major supernatural element to the story. It’s not stupid hocus-pocus trickery. Chindin (Eric Schweig) is a terrifying character. He is a master of his craft, skillful in the use of poisoning. I love the way he is portrayed. I don’t think I have ever seen a more complex Indian antagonist on film. Ron Howard is shattering the movie stereotypes of Indians. They are good guys and bad guys. They are motivated by the same things as everyone else, greed, power, and lust. I’m so sick of the politically correct Indians we’ve been seeing in modern cinema. It’s about time someone had the balls to mix it up a bit. Ron Howard should be commended for not being afraid to show that even Indians can be corrupted.
Every actor delivers a phenomenal performance. That’s not an accident. Ron Howard pulls excellence from his actors, especially the younger ones. He grew up as a famous child actor and knows how to relate to them. Jenna Boyd (Dot) is so good in this movie. She acts up a storm, stealing the show from everyone else. Her character goes through such turmoil. We never forget that she is a child. She is not completely innocent, but struggles to deal with the horror of her situation. We see her character grow tremendously on their journey. She is afraid, terrified, but resolved to help in any way possible. Jenna Boyd could get nominated for this role. Evan Rachel Wood (Lilly) is also superb. She shot to fame earlier this year in the indie coming-of-age shocker “Thirteen”. The girl is on a roll. The Missing was the right choice for a follow-up. Look out for her in the future. She has the makings of a huge movie star.
Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones prove once more why they are the best. Every time I see them on film, I know that I’m getting an excellent performance. Their characters are embroiled in a tragic circumstance. They have a lot to deal with in addition to sorting out the past. I like the interchange between them. It’s highly dramatic, but not forced. These are not complicated people. They live simple lives, but are emotionally distraught. There is a good mix of character development and story progression. No matter what these two feel about each other, they have a serious time constraint. They have to reach Lilly before she crosses into Mexico. It makes sense that they would come to terms quickly under such duress. Melodrama is non existent in this film.
The marketing campaign for the movie distances it from being called a western. Universal and Imagine does not want this film viewed as a western. I guess they don’t like the associations that come to people when they think of westerns. That’s really a shame because this is an exemplary western. The Missing belongs in the same category as Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and this year’s Open Range. I liked every aspect of The Missing. It’s a well made film and I hope it finds an audience. Ron Howard deserves to be thought of as one of the best directors in Hollywood. He’s made to many great films to be thought of otherwise.