The Missing dir. Ron Howard

Opens Fri Nov 28.

Ron Howard's new film, The Missing, offers a number of curious sights. There is the sight of Cate Blanchett, angelic as always, yanking the last remaining tooth from an ancient woman's rotting gums. There is the sight of Aaron Eckhart folded up like a lawn chair inside a hunting net. There is the sight of a dusty and drug- addled Tommy Lee Jones flopping about the desert, chatting with a hawk. What the film does not offer, though, is a thrilling experience. Howard, delivering his first film since A Beautiful Mind was showered with awards, has managed to assemble a chase film, à la John Ford's classic The Searchers (which is its obvious influence), that is lumbering, obvious, and surprisingly unengaging, a film that routinely pauses when it should sprint. The result is not just dull, but, on the whole, a fairly terrible endeavor.

Cate Blanchett plays a woman named Maggie Gilkeson, a "healer" living with her two daughters in the bleak expanse that was 1885 New Mexico. Widowed and estranged from her father, Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned her when she was young in favor of a life among the Apache Indians, Maggie has become a bitter shell of a woman, devotedly Christian, and hostile toward all things mystical and mojo. In a surprising dash of authenticity, she is decidedly racist. Her dislike of Native Americans is only amplified when first her faux-Indian father breezes onto the ranch looking to patch up their relationship, and then her eldest daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), is kidnapped by Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a native brute with mystical powers.

What does this Pesh-Chidin want with young Lilly? His plan is to take her to Mexico where she, along with a number of young women also kidnapped from their homesteads, will fetch a fair number of pesos. Helping Pesh-Chidin with his transaction is a gang of army deserters--both paleface and Indian--who have decided it's time for them to receive a little payback for their service. On the trail of these outlaws is the mighty U.S. Army, but as it turns out, President Chester A. Arthur's men are headed in the wrong direction; thinking Pesh-Chidin is headed north instead of south, the good soldiers giving chase are of little use, leaving Maggie stranded with her own devices to rescue her daughter. Can you see where this is all headed?

Enter what is intended to be the substance in The Missing, a substance that is not, unfortunately, an exciting and tense chase through New Mexico. Kicking the true spirit of the film into a canyon, Howard, along with screenwriter Ken Kaufman, has chosen instead to weigh the picture down with lengthy and uninspired stretches of father-daughter bonding. Isn't it enough for Jones to put his life on the line to help rescue a granddaughter he barely knows? Apparently not. Jones and Maggie must heal through discourse instead of action, constantly bringing the wagons to a screeching halt in order to melt the glacier that is their relationship, and the final concoction is a painfully touchy-feely affair. Jones spouts wise about Native American customs and mysticism, Maggie snorts back at him about her abandonment issues, and every once in a while they exchange fire with the enemy. Yee-haw.

Surprisingly, early word on The Missing has been kind, with many critics citing it as Ron Howard's first film to dive into his darker side. This, as it turns out, is a sham; Howard may have attempted to dive in, but whatever darker side he may have appears to be too shallow to swim in. In other hands, The Missing could have been a bleak, exciting throwback, a revisiting of the classic Western, but only Schweig as the evil Pesh-Chidin appears to have mustered any energy; when, at one point, he shoves a handful of dirt into Lilly's mouth and shouts, "This is what the rest of your life will taste like!" the effect is chilling. Pesh-Chidin is a thoroughly nasty villain, capable, we believe, of doing anything. Why then must Maggie and Jones waste so much time chatting on their way to catching him?