The Missing (review)

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Missing in Action

Damn, it’s one of my biggest movie pet peeves, right up there with not enough male nudity onscreen and people who climb over me to go to the concession stand in the middle of the film: Trailers and TV ads for awesome films that, when you go to see them, turn out not to be the movies that were advertised.

Why can’t we live in the alternate universe where The Missing really is “the most hauntingly powerful film of the year” or whatever they’re pretending it is on the ubiquitous television commercials? I want to see that film, the one that looks like a horror western done up by the love child of Sam Raimi and Peter Weir, full of spooky mysticism and stirring adventure and Cate Blanchett kicking ass and Tommy Lee Jones doing his rugged tough-nut thing.

Blanchett and Jones are all we get, though — the rest of the film around them never catches fire, doesn’t even bother to meet all their effort and dedication half way. I blame Ron Howard, who appears not to know what to do with actors and can’t edit worth a damn, though I don’t know that I should have expected much after the overwrought burlesques of A Beautiful Mind and The Grinch. I guess I keep hoping that Howard will remember why Apollo 13 is still his best, most powerful film: He let the story tell itself, didn’t frill it up or try to make it something it wasn’t.

No such luck here. What could have and should have been a tight, suspenseful action drama buoyed by the bittersweet mending of broken ties between an estranged father and daughter is instead overlong, loopy, and unsure of itself. It’s 1885 in the American Southwest, and Jones’s (The Hunted, Men in Black II) Samuel Jones and his daughter, Blanchett’s (Veronica Guerin, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) Maggie Gilkeson, come reluctantly together after years apart — he’d abandoned her and her mother to live with the Apache Indians and she’s never forgiven him — to hunt down the slavers who’ve kidnapped her own daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood: Thirteen, Simone). Now, it’s a race against time to find Lilly before her captors move her across the Mexican border and she is gone forever.

At least, it’s supposed to be a race against time. There are some genuinely pulse-quickening set pieces — as when Maggie’s younger daughter, Dot (Jenna Boyd: Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star), the third member of the rescue mission, is nearly swept away down a gully swollen by a sudden rainstorm — but the leisurely pacing in between the exciting bits fails to suggest that time is of the essence. Worse are the thematic detours, symptoms of loftier aspirations than those of the perfectly fine B movie this could have been. The film has some intriguing ideas about the spiritual and cultural clash between Native Americans and immigrant Europeans in the 19th-century West — Maggie clings to her crucifix and recites Bible verses while Lilly’s kidnapper, Indian witch Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), casts curses and steals the mojo from rattlesnakes — but it doesn’t know what to do with those ideas. The concept of competing magical philosophies acts as a motif, an undercurrent, which is great, until, with us having no inkling that such a thing was possible in the universe of the film, the magic suddenly actually works. On its own, it’s a powerful scene for Blanchett, but in context, it’s jarring and unexpected in the wrong way and serves to bring this race against time to a complete standstill. In that alternative universe where The Missing is a taut 90-minute thriller, that bit will be in the deleted-scenes section on The Missing DVD, where on the commentary track Howard notes how terrific Blanchett is and how sorry he was to have to cut it but that it just interrupted the flow of the film.

In this universe, though, Howard lets himself get weighed down by his desire to make Great Art. The Missing isn’t a total loss: Blanchett and Jones are a potent pairing, creating an authentically tough and tender father-daughter relationship under harsh conditions. If only Howard had been content to see their excellent work as ambitious enough makings of a fine film.

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