A review of “The Missing” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: R for violence and graphic images

Run Time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

 

 

Ron Howard steps out of his trademark feel-good cocoon with a bloody western thriller that reeks of self-conscious family therapy.

New Mexico, 1885.  Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is living life the pioneer way in an isolated and lawless wilderness.  She’s raising two young daughters, “healing” the locals, and keeping the carnal fires burning with a lonesome cowboy (Aaron Eckhart as Brake).

Their hardscrabble life gets harder a la life’s nasty twists:  the unexpected arrival of Maggie’s estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones as Sam Jones) and the abrupt disappearance of Brake and the two girls.

Forced to set out to locate her loved ones, Maggie reluctantly enlists Sam’s help.  Long ago turned to the way of the Apache, Sam is something of a natural tracker.  Youngest child Dot (Jenna Boyd) is quickly discovered wandering the bush, but teenage Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) has been kidnapped by a psychopathic killer cum Indian desperado who has every intention of selling her to the highest male bidder.

Through sagebrush and snowy landscapes and over hill and dale, Maggie, Sam and the hyper-precocious Dot pursue Lily and her captors, ultimately coming face to face with the voodoo horror of a brutal cult of bandits.

“The Missing” could have worked as a psychological thriller, but it plays its hand too early and too often.  Chief freak (a prosthetically disfigured Eric Schweig) is unmasked early on, deflating the sense of mystical tension that should have been drawn out to suspenseful effect. 

A series of gun battles at the OK Corral feel stagy and bloated and do little to serve the narrative good. Ditto the inevitable mano-a-mano white hat/black hat confrontations where good inevitably triumphs over evil. Clash of faiths – Christianity vs. Native American spirituality – offers up intriguing theological potential that withers on the western vine.

The sweet stench of family bonds and values perfumes the air. An uneasy alliance of father and daughter and the unspoken bond of mother and her girls.  Blanchett and Boyd maintain genuine mother-daughter chemistry that speaks to a life void of superfluous distraction. Blanchett is every inch the compassionate parent (not to mention a crack rider), while Boyd exudes a natural joie-de-vivre that captures the innocence and determination of a young prairie-raised female.  Jones is too much of a good thing – pockmarked, embittered, and slightly over-the-top with his nature man shtick.

Director Howard knows a good old-fashioned family value when he sees one, but he should stick to what he knows best – manipulative, crowd-pleasing fare.