Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 4, 2004)
Ron Howard sure started the 21st century well. In 2000, he directed , which went on to become the year’s biggest hit with a gross of $260 million. 2001’s A Beautiful Mind didn’t rake in as much money, but given its dramatic subject matter, the flick’s take of $170 million seems very strong. Oh, it also nabbed the Best Picture Oscar and snared Howard the prize as Best Director.
For his follow-up to Mind, Howard made 2003’s The Missing. However, it failed to capture much attention, either critically or financially. As I recall, it received pretty mediocre reviews. Audiences essentially ignored it, and the movie made only $26 million.
Set in New Mexico circa 1885, we meet Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a frontier healer who tends to the locals and raises her daughters Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd). We also encounter her boyfriend, rancher Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart).
Early in the film, a mystery man names Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) comes to find Maggie. When the two of them meet, it seems clear some history exists, and we soon learn that Jones is Maggie’s father. She harbors very negative feelings toward her old man and wants him gone.
Maggie tends to Jones’ wounds and confronts him with all of the pain his actions inflicted in the past. He attempts to make amends but fails and soon leaves. Lilly hates her life on the farm and aspires to depart as well, though not with Jones; she dreams of a less primitive existence.
Brake takes the kids into town one day while Maggie stays back on the farm. Oddly, the trio remains away longer than expected, and only Dot’s lone horse returns. Maggie rides to investigate and finds Brake’s assistant Emiliano (Sergio Calderon) murdered and stripped naked. She also discovers that someone killed Brake and wrapped him in some form of weird ceremonial dealie. Dot soon emerges from the woods still alive, and she provides some details of what occurred. She tells that someone rode away with Lilly.
Dot claims that an Indian who wore a hood did this heinous deed, and Maggie logically suspects Jones. However, when she chats with the local law, she learns that Jones couldn’t be the killer, as he spent the prior night in jail. The police have their hands full with crowds for their fair, so they can’t help track after Lilly. Maggie plans to do so herself, and when Jones offers to help, she realizes that she needs assistance and allows him to come with them.
Along with Dot, the estranged father and daughter hit the trail. Those two get to know each other a little better, though Maggie seems quite reluctant to let down her barriers.
Soon we discover who kidnapped Lilly along with a number of others. It’s a tribe of Indians who plan to sell the females in Mexico. We eventually learn that the Apaches are US soldiers who deserted and took to their criminal ways. The 4th Cavalry tracks them but seems to lack the wherewithal to follow through fully.
This upsets Maggie, but she and Jones intend to continue their hunt, and they’ll buy back Lilly if they catch up to the Indians before they get to Mexico. The movie alternates between their work on the trail and the events that befall Lilly, who works to escape.
I went into The Missing with little knowledge of its story. I did read the blurb on the back of the package before I watched, something I came to regret. According to the DVD’s case, Lilly is “snatched by a dark-hooded phantom with shape-shifting powers. Maggie’s long-estranged father suddenly appears, offering help.” Both events occur, but the description a) presents them in the wrong order, and b) implies a much heavier emphasis on the mystical and spooky than we actually find.
I’m reluctant to discuss those elements, as I hate presenting spoilers, and were it not for the case’s blurb, I wouldn’t mention them at all. If the movie followed the path described, we’d know about the supernatural elements quite early in the film, but we don’t. In fact, the movie doesn’t engage in any of that kind of material until almost 90 minutes into the story, and even that sequence just involves a curse that may or may not really be “supernatural”. If a phantom appeared, I must have nodded off for those moments.
This leaves most of The Missing as a simple kidnapping and chase story. We watch the baddies and see our leads follow their trail. They go through some obstacles along the way, and the abducted one predictably tries to free herself. Nothing even remotely unusual occurs in these parts of the story, as Missing takes a traditional path.
And a plodding one at that. Without question, the movie borrows liberally from the noted John Ford effort
The Searchers. I’ve not yet grasped the reason for that flick’s status as a classic, so I definitely don’t find much value in a movie that essentially remakes it.
The story evolves at a very slow and deliberate pace, but not one that makes a lot of sense. At 137 minutes, Missing seems way too long. There’s just not a lot that happens here, so the extended running time makes the dull tale even less stimulating.
Not only does Missing take a long way to go anywhere, but also it never arrives at an intriguing destination. The movie feels like a lot of build up with very little pay off. It does little to keep us interested along the way, as it plods along toward not much of anything.
Missing boasts a nice cast, but they get little to do. Blanchett seems doomed to often be misused or underused in her roles, and both occur here. She doesn’t get much to do most of the time, and Maggie offers little personality. As for Jones, he plays his usual rugged tough guy with the wounded soul. He mostly relies on his hangdog look and never presents any challenge.
Ultimately, The Missing feels too slow and too pointless to succeed. It plods along and fails to present an engaging or entertaining journey. Little more than a rehash of The Searchers with a couple of failed twists, the flick consistently falls flat.