The Missing, a film with a pardonably melodramatic title, stands with brooding confidence on its own sturdy legs like a veteran gunslinger who knows he’ll draw first and aim true – but even more remarkably is that this brutal, poetic, thoughtful, rusty, corrosive, and somber Western is brought to us by Ron Howard who struck it big as a director 20 years ago with the Tom Hanks mermaid comedy, Splash.
It is rare that a filmmaker is granted such longevity of career that his audience is privileged to watch him mature with every film, but Mr. Howard appears to grow both creatively and artistically with each outing. Evidently, the laurels he received for A Beautiful Mind were not ones upon which he intends to rest.
He even manages to produce a Western, one of the oldest, tried, and revered genres of filmmaking, that feels strikingly relevant and thoroughly new and fresh. One would have to go back ten years to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven to find the last important horse and six shooter classic (before that there was Young Guns I and II, but my obsession with Emilio, Lou, Kiefer, Charlie, Casey, and Dermot is for another time – REGULATORS!).
The inspired casting, with ice princess Cate Blanchett as a doctor and mother trailing her kidnapped daughter and Tommy Lee Jones as her gruff father who neglected the family to turn Apache, makes this already stirring saga an emotional journey across lonely barren planes and dusty winding path(o)s as well. Writer Ken Kaufman, working from the novel by Thomas Eidson, layers the gripping adventure foundation just below the crackling surface of “family” exploration and the ties that bind kindred (or, if you’re already lost in the whole Western mood, just “kin”).
As far as the always dread child acting is concerned, Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd as Blanchett’s hearty daughters…you’re not gonna get much better than these two phenoms; both beauties can be expected to make it in pictures.
Eric Schweig, who's name sounds like he could be the accountant who sits next to you at hashkama, is the most memorably petrifying villain Hollywood has unleashed in a while (and he’s not Jewish, he’s Native American). The script here has the guts and authoritative composure to treat with respect the possibility that Schweig, as a witch, and those who have a unique relationship with the natural world, can have the ability to manipulate and sort of coerce the spirits into performing atrocities or miracles. In other words, we are asked to suspend some practical beliefs and dwell for at least a few hours in a slightly more mystical, less temporal realm. We are confronted with questions about religion, sin, faith, and family, all while being enraptured by mesmerizing (excruciatingly violent) action sequences.
The concept of life and living has a different meaning out where the land and climate (and many times the people as a result) are relentless and harsh, and Howard uncovers, through an appreciated amount of stark details, the bitterness of and passionate loyalty to that reality.
The pace of The Missing is a tribute to Ron Howard and his wonderful sense of storytelling. The drama builds patiently with the stunning, haunted landscapes of New Mexico serving as backdrops to the spare tensions of farm life and once that uncomfortably serene tone is set…you better hold on to the reigns because, to borrow a film cliché’ as old as the first silent Westerns, you’re in for one hell of a ride.
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