MISSING, THE(director: Ron Howard; screenwriter: Ken Kaufman/from the novel “The Last Ride” by Thomas Eidson; cinematographer: Salvatore Totino; editors: Mike Hill/Dan Hanley; music: James Horner; cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Samuel Jones), Cate Blanchett (Maggie Gilkeson), Eric Schweig (Chidin), Evan Rachel Wood (Lilly Gilkeson), Jenna Boyd (Dot Gilkeson), Aaron Eckhart (Brake Baldwin), Val Kilmer (Army Officer), Clint Howard (Sheriff Purdy), Jay Tavare (Kayitah), Simon Baker (Kayitah’ son Honesco); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Brian Grazer; Columbia Pictures; 2003)
“After 130 minutes on the trail, all that I saw was an ending that Roy Rogers could live with–and his westerns were about half as long and far less pretentious.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Ron Howard’s bleak frontier film, The Missing, flirts with the salient theme of John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers, as a white frontier girl is kidnapped by Indians. But the workmanlike and sentimental Howard, a popular commercial filmmaker, who made A Beautiful Mind and stole an Oscar for such an ordinary work, has no feel for this film’s big themes of racism, abandonment, and healing, and never gets his pic to be more meaningful than a typical soulless B action western. Howard is no Eastwood, and he sure is no Peckinpah. His cowboy touch is mawkish, and his instincts are to wrap everything up with a tidy explanation before the final shoot-out. Though throwing down a number of themes that gripped 19th century America and still perplex in the modern era, he nevertheless comes up bone dry as he makes his hero an Indian-lover instead of the Indian-hater Ford made him. The result is a safe pic that offers safe answers for those adventurers who don’t have the stomach to go off the beaten path and see what racist “Amerika” looked like back then, with the last of the Indians on the warpath before they go back on the reservation.

The Missing is scripted by Ken Kaufman and is based on Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride. Credit for the annoying sound track goes to James Horner. The forgettable photography splendors were by Salvatore Totino, as the Hallmark Card sunsets and vistas failed to add the right mood to the ongoing story about a struggle between good and evil forces.

Howard drains all the fire out of his targeted racist message and loss of American identity scenario, as he plays these old themes into an overlong and dull family-themed melodrama about a chase — one that is emotionless and painful to watch. Despite white magicians dueling black magicians, trinkets with the power to ward off spells, and a call for family togetherness and an end to hostility between the races, the film is so awkwardly conceived that nothing is believable–the reality or the magic. By trying to make this a pic for the mind only, Howard obliterates any threat of rape from the villainous scoundrels and reduces the pretty kidnap victims to be merely symbols to be bartered for love of family in the face of their abandonment instead of flesh-and blood people. Without digging into what really eats away at the racist heart in America, the film goes bland and the slave train of kidnapping victims becomes a plot device dragged along in order for Howard to go all over the map trying to say a mouthful of something or other.

Set in the rugged wilderness of the New Mexico territory in 1885, where plucky single mom healer Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) lives in a bare log cabin with her two diverse daughters, both from different fathers not seen on the screen, the perky tomboyish 10-year-old Dot (Jenna Boyd) and the unhappy cultivated 15-year-old Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), who curses being born into such a dreadful situation and yearns for the day she’s old enough to flee to a big city and civilization. When renegade Apaches attack Maggie’s homestead, they torture and kill both her ranch hands. One of them is her boyfriend Brake (Eckhart). They also kidnap Lilly with the plan to sell her into slavery in Mexico.

Reporting this to the local sheriff (Clint Howard, the director’s brother), Maggie’s aghast that he’s so cold-hearted and refuses to send a search party claiming it’s Army business. With no place to turn for help, Maggie is forced to ask her long lost white man-turned-Indian father, the leathery, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), to help track her daughter. Sam abandoned the family for an Apache squaw many years ago and Maggie has not forgiven him for the pained life she led since, as her mother died when she was a youngster and she had to fend for herself.

Following the skilled tracker, mother and daughter become dependent on Sam to bring the family back together, even if it means enduring severe hardships. When they track the renegades on their way to Mexico, they run into a border town homestead where a family is murdered and the man’s wife and child kidnapped. The Army officer (Val Kilmer) in charge refuses to help because he has orders to return north with the “hostiles” he rounded up. But the officer clears up the mystery of why the Indians, who were employed previously by the Army as scouts, have gone savage with a group of Army deserters and have agreed to be led by a powerful black magician, Sam’s alter ego, Chidin (Eric Schweig).

The film’s most engrossing scene is when the medicine man casts a spell on Maggie from a great distance and she writhes in pain, as the powers of white and black magic clash. It touched a nerve on how the Native Americans and the Christian Maggie have their own methods of dealing with faith, and how wacky anything mystical seems to a believer in the orthodox. Maggie has a natural hatred for the Apaches due to her father and the nature of the racist times. But this clash was all surface, like everything else in the film.

So much is thrown out there to show how America and the family need healing; but when it gets down to the specifics of what happened to Maggie and Sam to make them grow so distant, we only get hints of that conflict (same goes for the rift between Indians and white men). We can only guess that Maggie was sexually abused when abandoned and the reason her father split was because he had the bug to travel as he was drawn more closely to the Indian culture than to the white man’s. Howard’s way of getting to the healing needed is to go off in all directions, applying some pseudo-feminism here and some pseudo-magic there, and if all that isn’t enough — he lays on a pseudo-Indian as his spokesperson for change and family values. Perhaps this film is closer to Ford’s My Darling Clementine than The Searchers, as the nomadic savage comes home at last. In the end, Howard’s most personal film to date, offers a plea for understanding and acceptance. What is ultimately missing from The Missing, is a way of connecting all the dots and saying something profound that’s not corny. After 130 minutes on the trail, all that I saw was an ending that Roy Rogers could live with–and his westerns were about half as long and far less pretentious.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”