Armed with his A Beautiful Mind Oscar, Ron Howard stretches his wings with this attempt at a dark, wholly adult Western. And it is a brave attempt — I just wish I could say that I thought it was also a successful one.
The best I can say is that The Missing doesn’t fail the genre outright — and that, yes, the film is certainly a huge departure for Howard. It’s dark, brooding and surprisingly violent, and also often exciting (though at 130 minutes, it has more than its share of slow patches), even if it just misses being involving. Worse, perhaps, is that Howard is finally too entrenched in Hollywoodiana to break entirely from his standard approach.
Sure, this is not the movie any of us expected from one of the most sanitized, white-bread filmmakers around. Still, Howard undermines The Missing by adhering to such standards as bringing in dad Rance and brother Clint for small roles (not to mention an equally distracting bit from Val Kilmer as an army general). Some filmmakers (like Robert Altman, Tim Burton and Ken Russell) can get away with this sort of thing, because they make deliberately self-referential movies that are part of an overall style and body of work. Howard — whatever else he may be — is more along the lines of the competent craftsman.
His movies don’t add up to a body of work so much as they do an unconnected series with no discernible signature. Howard films live or die on the basis of a more-traditional suspension of disbelief — something that’s ruptured the moment a too-familiar face pops up, prompting the viewer to mutter, “Hey, look, it’s so-and-so.” And while this isn’t damaging in a lightweight film, it can be a death knell in something as ostensibly dark as The Missing, where atmosphere is 90 percent of the battle.
Howard pretty much had me in terms of that atmosphere for a while. The film’s first 30 or 40 minutes boasted just the flavor this noir variant on John Ford’s The Searchers needed — it was bleak, menacing and slightly crude. When the movie made the daring move of killing off a name actor, I was even ready to forgive an unnecessary injection of Howardian cuteness — a sequence where “medicine woman” Cate Blanchett extracts the last remaining tooth from an old lady.
Here, it seemed, was finally a Ron Howard movie where anything could happen! Which proved all too true in a bad way not much later, when Clint Howard arrived right on nepotistic cue as the sheriff (complete with Rance Howard as the telegraph operator). Then, before the film could completely recover, here came Gen. Val Kilmer.
Though if wasn’t a case of things going downhill from there, it did take a while for the movie to recover its mood. But by that time, I’d started having trouble with Howard’s idea of seriousness, which all too often seems to consist of lengthy close-shots of his characters looking very glum indeed.
Then the story itself started developing shortcomings, most notably in its portrayal of Blanchett’s kidnapped daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen), presented as so self-centered and stupid that it becomes very hard to care what happens to her — which is not, I suspect, the feeling Howard wanted to generate. And then plot holes started showing through. For example, a big deal is made of how the Indian kidnappers who are selling girls in Mexico (along with their band of white cohorts, to make it a little more PC) have to keep their bounty “pristine.” And sure, that makes a certain amount of sense — except that one of their victims happens to be a young mother with an ailing toddler in tow. (Unless someone’s out to found a new religion here, I’d say the virginity of this lass is somewhat in dispute.)
It’s only fair to note that there are also an equal number of good — and near-good — things about The Missing, not least of which is its unusual infusion of Indian mysticism into the plot by making the head bad guy, Chidin (Eric Schweig, Big Eden), a powerful brujo, or witch. The details of his witchcraft are intriguing and appropriately creepy, but the film errs a bit in building the character himself. I was completely convinced of Chidin’s unbridled evil, but considerably less sold on the actual menace of his magical powers.
Perhaps Howard and screenwriter Ken Kaufman (Muppets From Space!) were afraid the film’s importance would be compromised if it veered too far toward the realm of the horror genre — in which case, they probably ought to have held back on The Missing‘s more macabre moments, too, since what they end up with is a horror-Western hybrid with a not-all-that-convincing “monster.”
The performances of Blanchett (atoning nicely for Veronica Guerin) and Tommy Lee Jones as her estranged father (almost making up for his turns in MIB II and The Hunted) help the movie to get by. And that’s the sad part of it: The Missing is so good in so many ways that it ought to manage more than just muddling through. Yet, in the end, that’s where it finds itself.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke