Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: The Missing

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2003 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

This is an odd throwback of a Western, featuring vicious, slave-trading Indians (aided and abetted by other, white, Army deserters), but also strong, heroic women. The chase across New Mexico is gorgeously filmed, and the danger both nature and civilization present is realistically presented, but there's also an undercurrent of the supernatural that undercuts a lot of the movie's believability.

A good chunk of that believability comes from star Cate Blanchett. As a single mother of two trying to run a ranch, Blanchett displays the kind of strength that is expected from her. Her character is intelligent, stubborn, and fiercely protective of her children; her anger toward the father who abandoned her and the rest of her family as a child (Tommy Lee Jones) simmers, wholly justified but still powerful enough to destroy her.

Tommy Lee Jones is more problematic. He left his family thirty years earlier to live with the Apache, and director Ron Howard makes great use of Jones's wrinkled, weatherbeaten face. His tendency to not so much overact but be larger than life doesn't quite mesh with the other characters in the early going, though. Even for someone who is supposed to be somewhat alien, not part of the same world as the other characters, he seems too different. His other "great white hunter" role this year, in The Hunted, just seemed to fit the rest of the movie better.

The actresses playing the daughters do well. Evan Rachel Wood already has a decent resume, but she plays a character I like - although her disdain for frontier life may rub some audience members the wrong way, it later becomes clear that although she doesn't want to live like her mother, she has inherited the same sort of strength of will and ability to survive. Ten-year-old Jenna Boyd, as the younger daughter, takes a part that could be very annoying, but emerges likable and believable. Maybe she owes someting to Ron Howard, who by now probably has more experience both directing child actors and being directed as a child actor than anyone else out there.

Howard probably deserves more credit than he gets for directing spectacle, too. The Missing features several big set-pieces, all brought off fairly well. He also directed Backdraft and Apollo 13, and other technically demanding pictures, yet his name isn't mentioned when dream directors for big movies come up (for instance, I think he'd do a great Superman). The picture as a whole isn't his best work - it could be shorter, among other things - but it's still pretty good.

The biggest issue is the film's main villain. Played by Eric Schweig, this Apache "witch" is a caricatured monster - hulking, scarred, playing with snakes, dabbling with supernatural, selling nubile young girls into slavery. He barely speaks, further dehumanizing him. He's so undeveloped relative to the other characters, character-wise, that the writers seem to try to make up for it with viciousness. An odd choice, as well as a politically incorrect one.

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