December 01, 2003

The Missing

I've been reading for years that director Ron Howard was looking to direct a Western that didn't adhere to any of the standard-issue Western guidelines. No saloons, no gunfights at high noon in a wind-swept town, no cattle drives, etc. And for the most part, he's succeeded with his anti-Western THE MISSING. And even when he does fall back on classic Western fixtures, it works. The whole film works beautifully.

The first very non-Western thing he does is make his main protagonist a woman, in this case a single mother named Maggie Gilkeson, played with a perfect combination of brute force and intense femininity by chameleon Cate Blanchett. She lives on a small farm in New Mexico near the Mexican border with her two daughters, Lilly (THIRTEEN's Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), and makes a living as an unlicensed doctor. A kind and handsome suitor (Aaron Eckhart) visits her often and even occasionally stays overnight, but she is resistant to his marriage proposals. One day, an old Indian comes riding in on his mule, supposedly looking for help. After a while, it becomes clear that the man isn't an Indian at all, but a white man who has lived among Indians for decades and has lived their life as his own. Tommy Lee Jones, playing the first real character he's played in a long while that didn't seen to be a variation of his role in THE FUGITIVE, is magnificent as Samuel Jones, who just also happens to be Maggie's long-estranged father who abandoned the family when she was still young. Maggie wants nothing to do with him and forces him to leave without making peace with her.

The next morning, the suitor takes the two daughters with him as he rounds up his cattle for branding. They never return. After waiting all night for them to return, Maggie hops a horse and tries to find them. What she discovers is pretty nasty: A campsite where some bloody doings have taken place. Dot wanders out of the woods scared out of her mind, the elder daughter has been taken, and the suitor...well, let's just say it's gruesome. Dot finally manages to tell her mother that it was an Indian that has kidnapped Lilly, and Maggie sets out in search of her father to see if he can shed any light on the matter and help find her daughter. It turns out that the Indian in question is part of a large group of slave traders (both Indian and white) who kidnap white and Indian women, take them across the Mexican border, and sell them for prostitution. Once the cross the border, Sam says, they are lost forever. So the task becomes to find them before they cross.

Ron Howard has constructed a remarkable work in THE MISSING, as he mixes the natural with the supernatural. Eric Schweig (THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS) plays the scarred and frightening Chidin, something of an evil medicine man who loves to blow hallucinogenic dust into the faces of his enemies and watch them slowly lose their minds. Or he just tortures them. Take your pick. Howard smartly doesn't race through his story. In addition to this being a story of finding a kidnapped teenager, THE MISSING is also about dealing with age-old grudges between a father and daughter, perhaps the more impossible task. Not surprisingly, the vistas Howard uses are stunning, the acting is superb, the story is compelling, and it becomes clear early on that the question of who lives and who dies is not as certain as you might think with a cast this high profile. Just to keep us on our toes, Howard peppers interesting cameos here, including ones by his father, his brother Clint, his WILLOW start Val Kilmer, and even Eckhart's role should probably fall into this grouping.

Although not nearly as violent as something like THE LAST SAMURAI, this film is rated R for violence, and it's actually a breath of fresh air to have Howard working under more hard-core circumstances. He conserves his blood for key sequences when they will have the most impact, to great effect. It's also a nice break from form to have Tommy Lee Jones doing something other than playing a wise-ass. Here, he's a concerned father and grandfather who knows he has much to make up for and probably little time to do so. And he's a wise-ass! THE MISSING illustrates the best of what Ron Howard does (with exceptions like THE GRINCH), he makes no frills films that focus on story and characters and less on special effects and gimmicks, as he did in APOLLO 13 and BEAUTIFUL MIND. He has faith in his material, his actors, and his audience. What a refreshing way to make movies.

Posted by sprokopy at 02:47 PM