The Missing. Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Ken Kaufman, based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated R (for violence). Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer, Eric Schweig, Jay Tavare.

The Missing

The Missing is a frustrating motion picture. Wonderful for its first forty-five minutes or so, it succumbs to genre clichés and pointless mysticism in its final hour, and in its attempts to be rigorously politcally correct, it loses much of what could give it its power. It may be graced by several excellent performances, but even the best acting in the world can't salvage a tired narrative.

It is New Mexico, 1885. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), living with her lover, Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), and two daughters, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), is a frontier doctor who, as a staunch Christian, is obligated to help any who need it. But when her estranged father, Samuel Jones (Tomme Lee Jones), who abandoned Maggie's family to live with the Native Americans, returns for help after being bitten by a rattlesnake, she is reluctant to let him stay. That is, until a band of rogue Apaches, led by a mystic brujo, kidnaps Lily. Along with Dot, who refuses to be left behind, Maggie and Samuel leave home to retrieve her.

It's a good, if unoriginal, premise, but The Missing fails to live up to its potential. For the most part, the first hour of the film is taught and engaging, but it slowly falls apart. The ways in which the plot twists are predictable, and, oddly, the action soon loses its suspense - for once, I am actually unable to say why this is, exactly, but it's true nonetheless.

The men who kidnap Lily are bringing her, along with many other girls, south of the Mexican border to be sold into prostitution. This makes The Missing Ron Howard's grittiest movie, but he fails to carry through. The Apaches are going to sell the girls, yet they don't sexually abuse them in any way. Admittedly, there is an attempt to explain this with a throwaway line about how abuse decreases their value, but if that's true, then how can the men get away with brutally beating them?

And it certainly doesn't help that Lily isn't even all that likeable. From what little we see of her before her capture, she is a spoiled brat, so sick of rural life that she wears fancy clothes to milk the cows. And once she's taken, we don't learn much more about her, and when she makes a stupid mistake that could end up getting her killed, we can't help but kind of perversely think, "Heh. Serves you right." Evan Rachel Wood, from this year's Thirteen, gives a good, expressive performance, but she can't save the way her character was written.

The mysticism, a substantial part of the novel The Last Ride (on which The Missing is based), is poorly applied, and it seems utterly pointless, almost an afterthought the screenwriter decided to toss in at the last minute. A few short scenes of the mystic working his mojo does not a complete sideplot make. Other sidestories also seem to go nowhere; I get the distinct impression that a lot of film has been left on the cutting room floor.

There are two areas that stand strong throughout The Missing, and ultimately, these are what keep it from actually failing: the characters' relationships and the acting. The relationship between Maggie and Samuel is really very truthful and well-developed, and they share some great scenes. If the screenplay could have focused more on the characters than on the plot, The Missing could have been a great success.

Tommy Lee Jones, with his sunken face and weary eyes, is perfect for his role, and he is very good. He manages to get across his inner pain at leaving his family behind without actually verbalizing it, and when he is supposed to look imposing, he manages it without flaw. Cate Blanchett, once again playing the strong female heroine, is also very good, displaying how Maggie's love and unrelenting strength overcomes her fear.

Ron Howard is a talented director, and he handles all of The Missing with a sure hand. There isn't really ever a moment where we feel like he doesn't know what he's doing or like the film is getting away from him. But my ultimate feeling is, he may know what he's doing, but should he actually be doing it?

© 2003 Matt Noller