- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

If the hard-bitten and grueling new chase Western “The Missing” wanders off the reservation, don’t blame Cate Blanchett. She is compelling enough as a leading lady to preserve the human interest in Ron Howard’s wayward tale, opening today in area theaters.

Miss Blanchett is cast as Maggie Gilkeson, a tenacious New Mexico rancher of the 1880s. She is desperate to retrieve a teenage daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), abducted for sale to a Mexican bordello by a depraved, albeit ethnically “diverse,” gang of renegades. Miraculously, her kid sister Dot (Jenna Boyd, splendid when advancing the exposition through emotional breakdowns) manages to remain hidden during the raid that results in Lily’s capture.

Homicides and bloodcurdling atrocities are a trademark of the gang, led by a venomous — literally — psychopath called Chidin: He blends toxic potions from the secretions of rattlesnakes. Eric Schweig is a genuine gorgon as this brawny, filthy fiend.

In her hour of need, Maggie must turn to her long-lost father Sam Jones, a sorry apologetic specimen played by Tommy Lee Jones. At once a mournful and presumptuous stranger, Sam abandoned his own family to assimilate with the Apaches. Emerging a generation later with a guilt complex and a goodwill offering of $600, he may possess the only sort of contacts or savvy that can secure Lilly’s rescue.

That’s the idea, anyway. It sounds promising but proves disillusioning as the scenario treks beyond Act One.

The initial gruesome impact of Chidin’s crimes and the urgency of the pursuit — the gang must be overtaken within a three-day ride to the border — sustain a punishing but gripping and sinister mood for perhaps the first hour. Unfortunately, the plot soon snags during a digression that exposes the nearest U.S. Cavalry troops as hapless slackers. One begins to suspect that padding the social-allegorical agenda takes precedence over saving Lilly and the other captives from fates worse than death.

Sad Sam’s qualifications as a tracker look suspect when he navigates a canyon during a flash flood and almost gets himself and Dot drowned. In the aftermath of this botched episode, two of Sam’s Apache acquaintances turn up out of the blue for back-to-back infiltration schemes that need to go back to the drawing board. Even before we’re reminded that Sam shouldn’t be leading any kind of stealth operation, Maggie is threatened with possible long-range infection from Chidin, who cooks up a feverish hex with a strand of her hair.

Having appeased the crackpot supernatural segment of the Western audience, Mr. Howard seems a weary, scatterbrained searcher by the time Sam is expected to redeem his sins near the end. Lilly has begun to look like a hostage to father-daughter abandonment issues and settler-Indian coexistence issues.

Despite the unfortunate plot derailments and collapses, the movie imposes a distinctive look, partly the result of its evocative and varied New Mexico locations, but also the result of deliberately nightmarish insinuations by Mr. Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Tonino.

Julie Weiss, who first demonstrated a flair for witty costume design in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” may be better at characterization than most actors. Every principal character is dressed in ways that seem at once authentic and idiosyncratic. Miss Blanchett’s strong profile, for example, is enhanced by a flat-crowned hat and flowing cloak when the search party first rides out, buffeted by wintry weather.

Ultimately, however, the filmmakers’ pictorial skill is not enough to save this Western-cum-voodoo horror thriller from its fatally defective game plan.

**

TITLE: “The Missing”

RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere and occasional graphic violence, with extremely gruesome illustrative details of atrocities; occasional sexual candor, including allusions to child abduction and prostitution; fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Ken Kaufman, based on the novel “The Last Ride,” by Thomas Eidson. Cinematography by Salvatore Tonino. Visual consultant (i.e., production designer): Meredith Boswell. Costume design by Julie Weiss. Music by James Horner

RUNNING TIME: About 125 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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