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THE MISSING

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Ron Howard
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 137 Minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2004

"Can you track him?"

"Yeah, we could track him. But if you catch him, you'll wish you stayed in that house."

Film ***

With The Missing, director Ron Howard is exploring completely new territory as a filmmaker. Although he's long been a seasoned pro of a director, his Oscar win for A Beautiful Mind has given Howard the freedom to try out some material that is 180 degrees different from anything he's ever done in the past. Even though he's tried out several types of movie genres, from comedy (EDtv) to adventure (Willow) to suspense thriller (Ransom), he's never made a movie quite like The Missing. In fact, no director has made a movie quite like it.

It's very hard to classify the movie in a single genre. It can very much be labeled a dark western, yet it contains supernatural elements that aren't usually associated with westerns. It's also an intense family drama, as well as the tale of an abduction, the story element which provides the conflict of the story, not to mention the title. The varied elements are equally spread out, which add up to quite a unique movie experience.

The story is set in New Mexico in the year 1885, during the winding down part of the era known as the Old West. Living on the frontier, Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a rancher/resident nurse who lives her two daughters, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood, the strong young actress from Thirteen) and Dot (Jenna Boyd). Though not married, she has a companion in Blake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), who is also hired help on the property.

During one evening, Maggie's life is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of her estranged father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who comes back into her life hoping to reconcile. Years back, before Maggie had her children, Samuel abandoned his wife and daughter to live with and become one of the Apache tribe. Stunned and upset by the sudden visit, Maggie doesn't want anything to do with him, and requests that he leave at once.

Despite her enmity for her father, it all must be put aside when Maggie discovers Lily has been taken away by a band of army deserters led by an Apache Indian named Chidin (Eric Schweig). Before long, Samuel and Maggie saddle up, along with youngest daughter Dot, to begin a pursuit. Since Samuel is knowledgeable of the Apache, he can track them to the missing daughter's location. The only catch is the Apache who took her away is also sort of a phantom witch and capable of super-mystic powers.

The pursuit of Lily allows time for Maggie to ease away her harsh feelings towards her father, as the two begin to reconnect. They also manage to have a few deadly run ins with the incompetent army, bloodthirsty rattlesnakes, several dead bodies, and mother nature. Meanwhile, Lily finds herself part of a group of kidnapped women, who are being prepped to being sold as prostitutes in Mexico, where the deadly Apache is leading them to.

Every aspect of The Missing is very involving and compelling. Everything from the realized characters to the brief moments of action keeps the viewer hooked in. Howard has made the look of his film quite remarkable, too. The cinematography captured by Salvatore Totino is unique and breathtaking, as it takes advantages of the wide open landscapes of New Mexico and makes them look entirely different than it would in a traditional western. The images in The Missing are striking and much memorable.

The movie also gets the bonus of some strong performances, most notably on behalf of Mr. Jones and Ms. Blanchett. For Jones, this serves as a break from the "tough guy" roles he usually endures. Samuel is more of a wise, if somewhat complex, person, requiring the rugged Jones to turn in a much more restrained performance, which is mostly convincing. And Cate Blanchett is ultimately believable as the lead heroine. She makes Maggie into a strong and determined woman, willing to go through hell to get back her daughter. Blanchett is already being labeled as the next Meryl Streep, and her work here definitely illustrates why she's is labeled such.

The film's only flaw is that it is a little too long. As the story nears the end, a few prolonged exchanges between characters seem to go on longer than they need to and don't feel necessary this late in the game. Clearly, this may have been a casualty of the editing department.

The Missing is a unique journey of a movie. It's probably Ron Howard's most risky project to date, as well as his darkest piece of work yet. Compelling performances, haunting suspense, and incredible cinematography highlight this enjoyable and, at times, original western.

Video ****

Columbia Tri Star is already having a dynamite year with the performance of their releases, and The Missing is yet another addition to the studio's long list of quality-defining releases. The anamorphic picture is simply stunning for the eyes, and most remarkable to gaze upon. In both day and night sequences, for which there are both equal amounts of, the clarity and overall sharpness of the picture don't hold back for a second. The wonderful cinematography looks even more astounding, providing endless amounts of detail. A full screen version is also available.

Audio ****

Equal praise on the part of the audio transfer. CTS' 5.1 offering succeeds in both moments of action and suspense, as well as the more quiet portions of the movie. The set pieces used in the New Mexico setting provide simple things as the wind blowing in the background to flow through the channels effortlessly. The score by James Horner is delivered much strongly, and the moments of suspense and action speak for themselves in terms of sound power. Dialogue is, of course, clear and clean as always.

Features ****

I was caught by surprise by the notion that this was a 2-Disc release. I had no early knowledge of just how much was going to be included on this disc. Needless to say, I am much happy to be surprised.

Disc 1 includes commentary with Ron Howard, a soundtrack spot and a trailer gallery featuring trailers for this movie, as well as these CTS DVD and Theatrical releases: Hellboy, Spider-Man 2, 13 Going on 30, Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse, Big Fish, Something's Gotta Give, Panic Room, The Statement, The Devil's Backbone, and The Mothman Prophecies.

Disc 2 has even more. It includes eleven featurettes, eleven deleted scenes, three alternate endings, a photo gallery, and three short films by Ron Howard.

Summary:

The Missing is a surprising and intriguing hybrid of western and supernatural thriller. Ron Howard has proven here that he is capable of doing more edgy and darker material. The atmosphere and compelling performances by the leads make it all the more satisfying.