The Missing

December, 2003, Drama

As director Ron Howard approaches his 50th year, he can look back on a film career of considerable success as an actor, (American Graffiti), producer, (The 'burbs) and commercially successful director, (Splash, Backdraft, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). When he signed Tommy Lee Jones and Kate Blanchett to star in a kidnapping story set in New Mexico in the early days of the 20th century, I thought the results would be another interesting, if somewhat conventional movie. Instead, Howard has churned out a real clunker, wasting the considerable talents of his leads on an overlong, unnecessarily violent and surprisingly racist remake of John Ford's classic The Searchers

Blanchett plays Maggie, the widowed mother of two young girls, working at ramshackle ranch in northern New Mexico. Embittered because her father Samuel (Jones) abandoned her as a child to live an itinerant life among various Southwest Indian tribes, Maggie struggles to subsist on her late husband's land while raising daughters whose psychological growing pains appear more appropriate to a contemporary era. When the oldest girl is kidnapped by a gang of Indians who intend to sell her into prostitution in Mexico, Blanchett presses her suddenly returned father to tracking the abductors down before they can get to safely across the border. 

Adapting a novel by Thomas Eidson, Ken Kaufman's script manages to develop not a single credible character, much less a likeable one; I suspect he's trying for the kind of broad, outlandish portraits Larry McMurtry so successfully brought to life in Lonesome Dove but he succeeds only in generating characters whose traits are as uninteresting as they are unnecessarily violent. This is a dark film, to no purpose; although there are muddled references to the dignity of Indian cultures from Samuel and a pair of Indian friends who help him in his pursuit of the abductors, it all gets lost in the film's depiction of the sadistically deranged Indian leader of the kidnappers and the degenerate crew he brutalizes as incomprehensibly as he does his captives. 

Of the two leads, Blanchett has the easier job; she conveys a cold steeliness which softens as she joins her father in the chase, but Jones has the thankless task of trying to portray a character so confusing in background and motivation that every line of dialogue feels alien to the action of which it's a part. Inexplicably prickly one moment and awkwardly emotional the next, the audience just winds up being annoyed with him.

Overlong, pedestrian in its cinematography and lackluster in its pacing, Missing nearly bores you to death before the final, bloody finale. Whatever his noble intentions might have been in bringing this story to the screen, Howard needs to regroup for his next effort.  

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