Ron Howard may never make another film as great as “Apollo 13,” a masterpiece of filmmaking and an inspiring story of what can happen when people cooperate and work toward a common goal. His Oscar-winning Best Picture, “A Beautiful Mind” from 2001, which also garnered Howard a Best Director Award, is almost its equal.
“The Missing” tells the story of a widow living with her two young daughters on the 19th-century frontier. This woman practices medicine for the locals and keeps a boyfriend handy, though she does not desire to remarry. When her older daughter is kidnapped and her boyfriend killed, the woman must rely on help from her estranged father.
The old man concludes quickly that Indians have stolen his granddaughter, intending to sell her across the border to Mexicans. So the woman, her father whom she does not like, and her younger daughter start out on an adventure to save the missing family member.
This plot is not original. Audiences have seen this before in everything from the classic western “The Searchers” to the best western ever filmed, “Lonesome Dove.” Nothing new or clever happens in this retread. “The Missing” is not even the best western released this year; that designation would go to the good though imperfect “Open Range.”
The film may also disappoint those who have seen its advertisements, which depict the movie as much more frightening and supernatural than it actually is. There are supernatural elements to the story, but these are not extensive or truly essential to the plot. The film also never achieves the level of suspense that it should have.
This does not mean that this film is without elements that work. First, the two leads are outstanding. Cate Blanchett continues to offer one outstanding performance after another. Earlier this year she gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Veronica Guerin; her work here is almost equal to her portrayal of real-life reporter Guerin. She plays a strong, smart woman clinging to hope and willing to go to any extreme to save her daughter.
Blanchett’s performance is matched by the work of Tommy Lee Jones. Jones could have probably phoned in the role of this trapper and wayward father, but few could do this role as well. Seeing these two talents together is almost enough to redeem the film.
Another strength of the film is the villain. The Indian medicine man leading the band of kidnappers is one of the more menacing characters in any film this year. If only the story were equal to this role.
Finally, there is some stunning scenery and a climax on cliffs, all of which display fine cinematography and direction. Sadly though, the sum of these outstanding parts does not add up to an outstanding whole.
With the release of each new movie from director Ron Howard, film fans hope for another great work. “The Missing” is not the film many hoped it would be. For all the film’s strengths, there is still much lacking. However, the actor-turned-director, who charmed TV audiences for years as Opie Taylor and then Richie Cunningham, is still young enough to find more great stories to tell.
Here’s to the hope that his next film will be even greater than his best.
Roger Thomas is pastor of First Baptist Church in Ablemarle, N.C.
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Ken Kaufman (from the novel by Thomas Eidson)
Cast: Maggie Gilkeson: Cate Blanchett; Samuel Jones: Tommy Lee Jones; Lily Gilkeson: Evan Rachel Wood; Dot Gilkeson: Jenna Boyd; Brake Baldwin: Aaron Eckhart; Lieutenant: Val Kilmer.
The movie’s official Web site is here.