Some may call acclaimed director Ron Howard, a chameleon but in his latest film little maybe missing as he once more takes a bold move to expand his repertoire.
Howard’s latest venture is a journey into the back-bone of the “frontier” western. Western’s seem to have two or three standard categories.
The two high-profile kinds of westerns are the “frontier” and the “gunfight” western. “Frontier” westerns tend to delve more into the struggle it took for pioneers to settle the untamed west. It is usually a survival piece shaded with high energy adventure.
The “gunfight” style is pretty much what it states usually a good vs. bad or a group of good cowboys against the odds kind of film.
In recent years we have seen these styles become harder to recognize as the “modern” western emerged. With the dawn of Oscar-winners like “Unforgiven” and “Dances With Wolves” we saw a dramatic change in the genre.
The films seemed to be an evolution of the “gunfight” western with emotional tones of the “frontier” western. This brings us to Ron Howard’s “The Missing”.
His film debuts with the isolated but content family Gilkeson in the American Southwest in 1885. The matriarch of the Gilkeson’s is Maggie (Cate Blanchett) who is raising two daughters, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd) with help of her live-in boyfriend, Brake (Aaron Eckhart).
The family’s content existence is challenged with Maggie’s estranged “gone-native” father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) returns. Maggie’s discontent with her father’s visit and her anger towards him forces Brake to force Jones from their lives on the eve of an earth-shattering event that will change Maggie forever.
When the three significant people in Maggie’s life suddenly disappear during a routine ranching venture, Maggie must turn to her father for guidance in tracking down their whereabouts.
Though this event will push Maggie further than anything before, it may also unravel the mystery to why her father left her so many years ago.
Howard’s intense delving into the mind and spirit of his heroine allows Cate Blanchett to emerge at the top her game. With a squint of her eye, wrinkle of her brow or a tear from her eye, Blanchett is magical and utterly captivating in the role of a distraught mother. Her performance countered by steadfast Jones makes for very interesting viewing. I liked watching their relationship unravel more than the film’s whole terrifying kidnapping storyline.
Howard’s depiction of the classic western genre is deeply rooted in the “frontier” style as we follow a strong woman as she tries to survive after the men in her life have let her down in some way. Blanchett and Howard’s frontier woman seems to draw a lot of strength from another western heroine. In 1993’s “The Ballad of Little Jo”, we saw the first real woman centered western and I could see a lot the strength of “Little Jo’s” central character, Josephine Monaghan (play to perfection by Suzy Amis), in Blanchett’s Maggie.
This is what Howard focuses on as he unhinges his “frontier” western with a harrowing kidnapping. This adds tension to the “frontier” western without having the soul support of survival. Instead of surviving the west, the characters must survive the event.
In Howard’s previous kidnapping drama “Ransom,” the film focused on the aftermath of the kidnapping and the victim’s parents. In “The Missing” he goes one more step further as he also shows the viewpoint of the victim herself. This adds another strong female characterization as phenom Evan Rachel Wood’s Lily has to come to face to face with an evil Apache shaman.
Wood’s restrained and innocent take on the role brings Lily out as very real. The more desperate she becomes the more strength you can see in the young actress. It isn’t as overpowering as her role in “Thirteen” but still a great performance.
Howard’s trend of powerful female leads concludes with an amazing performance from new-comer Jenna Boyd. The amount of strength, range and scene-stealing ability is sure to make anyone praise this kid. In every scene, she literally eats up the screen. She is just so good. Look out, Dakota.
Ron Howard’s “The Missing” ups the antes in a lot of ways as he takes the mantle held by “Ballad of Little Jo” and goes one step further. He then also adds to the “frontier” western by adding a new direction of survival.
These are amazing accomplishments. This coupled with the three stand-out female performances make “The Missing” a formidable ride.
My only small problem with the film was that the harrowing ordeals of the kidnapping were extremely hard to endure. Not only do the characters have to survive but so does the audience. I would have liked to enjoy more of the relationships than the ordeals. “The Missing” is another brilliant western, “frontier” or not.
(4.25 out of 5)
So Says the Soothsayer.