Jones and Blanchett become Searchers
If someone had told me I would enjoy a western directed by Ron Howard I would have had my doubts. Nothing against Ron Howard as over the years he has proven what a talented director he is taking on various genres but the thought of him doing a western just didn't sound right, although as an actor he was in John Wayne's final western "The Shootist". As it turns out "The Missing" is a surprisingly good western, not the best western in recent years but one which is for the most solid. Taking a storyline similar to "The Searchers" Howard uses restraint to not make it either an imitation or a series of cliches and whilst an added mystical element doesn't quite work the added element of an estranged father looking for forgiveness does.
When her daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood - S1m0ne) suddenly goes missing and her close friend Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) is found dead Magdalena Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett - Charlotte Gray) fears that her eldest has been taken by Indians. With Sheriff Purdy (Clint Howard) unwilling to do anything other than inform the army, she is forced to turn to her estranged father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones - The Hunted) who has shown up looking to make amends having abandoned her and her mother when she was just a young child.
So as already mentioned "The Missing" does run with a similar storyline to "The Searchers" with a story which sees a loved one taken by Indians and Samuel Jones having returned to his daughter's home helping her to track her missing daughter down. But rather than just being about the hazardous and arduous trek of Samuel and Magdalena as they follow the trail across country "The Missing" also has the added storyline of Samuel being estranged having abandoned Magdalena and her mother when she was just a little child in order to go native and live with Indians. It's a cliche storyline which sees Samuel trying to make amends for his absence by helping Magdalena but combined with them searching for young Lilly makes for a reasonable western.
What also works is that Ron Howard never once spoon feeds us information but still gives us just enough depth. In the case of Samuel we get an idea of what he has been up to since abandoning Magdalena and her mother but we don't get every scrap of information, we are allowed to piece it all together ourselves. The same with Magdalena as whilst we learn that her eldest daughter Lilly came through marriage her youngest Dot wasn't yet by what Magdalena tells her father and how it allows us to make the assumption that she was raped. It makes a lot of difference when a director trusts the audience to be able to put 2 and 2 together to make up their own minds and it is one of the strengths of "The Missing".
"The Missing" is not by any means perfect and the occasional attempt to lighten the mood with a small touch of humour, as if Ron Howard was trying to do a John Ford, just doesn't work and feels out of place. Feeling out of place also extends to the whole mystical element as it feels like it has been thrown in to make "The Missing" more than just a cliche but it doesn't gel with the rest of the movie. It's a clever idea and maybe if the whole mystical element had been more prominent through out it would have worked but on the handful of times we get a mystical Indian magic scene it feels wrong.
Thankfully with the exception of one action scene the rest of the action is spot on. The restraint which Ron Howard shows with directing the big gun fights and there are a few allows these big moments to gel nicely with the rest of the story. But at the same time delivering that spurt of excitement that you expect from a western.
Performance wise, there is not a single bad performance in the movie and both Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd do a good job of playing Magdalena's daughters Lilly and Dot. But "The Missing" really belongs to Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. Blanchett as Magdalena not only gets across the element of a woman quietly determined to find her daughter despite knowing it is unlikely but also delivers the blend of hate and love she has for estranged father, it makes her character real rather than a western caricature. And Tommy Lee Jones delivers both the aspect of a father looking to make up for his absence but also as someone who has lived native with a face full of lines which tell their own story.
What this all boils down to is that "The Missing" was a surprisingly enjoyable movie and a decent modern western. The combined story of a missing family member and a father looking to make up for being absent works well especially with director Ron Howard showing a nice level restraint when it comes to western cliches. But sadly it is spoilt by the whole mystical side of the story which whilst a clever idea ends up jarring with the rest of the movie.