Judge David Johnson thinks he would last two days in the old west. It looks cold and dirty.
Yet another reason I'm grateful not to live in 19th century New Mexico: slave-trading witch doctors.
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black) star in this latest offering from Ron Howard, a western romp through the unforgiving frontier where disfigured Indians and scumbag white men kill and kidnap, and a kick-ass mom will uncork some whoop-ass to get her daughter back. How does Opie fare in this go-round?
Facts of the Case
Maggie (Blanchett) is scratching out an existence on her farmstead, with her two girls—Lily and Dot—at her side. Between regular farm work and treating the injuries of passing cowpokes and Indians, Maggie is able to put together a decent life for her family. One day, a mysterious man appears at her doorstep searching for aid, and her life changes: it is her father (Jones), who had abandoned his family years ago to live with a variety of Native American tribes. Maggie doesn't hide her animosity towards her father, and despite her daughters' curiosity, shoos him out as fast as she can.
The weirdness doesn't end there. Lily (the elder daughter) and Dot set off for town with Brake (Aaron Eckhart), Maggie's admirer, and don't come back. Panicking, Maggie searches the woods for the lost party and stumbles across a horrifying sight: Brake has been murdered, and Lily is missing. Dot, who had hidden from the marauders, recounts the story of Brake's death and Lily's abduction.
Finding no cooperation from the local authorities, Maggie enlists the help of her father, whom she tracks down in the town prison, to track the kidnappers. The three mount up and set off to hunt the attackers, who are led by the zany Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a witch doctor and generally despicable human being. These ne'er-do-wells are heading for the Mexican border to sell their crop of young farm girls into sex slavery.
As Maggie, Dot, and Dad continue the pursuit, they encounter a squad of U.S. soldiers that proves to be less than helpful, a father-son team of Indians who are effective at kicking ass, and some supernatural hanky-panky.
In the bonus features, Ron Howard repeats over and over his conscious avoidance of western clichés, as in "clichés in movie westerns," when making this movie. And, to be fair, The Missing isn't your normal western. What keeps it from breaking completely free of the mold, though, is its dependency on Hollywood clichés, which I'll get to in a second.
That doesn't mean I disliked the movie. To the contrary, I really, really, dug it. It wasn't the best-reviewed offering of the year, but I enjoyed some solid theatrical escapism watching the misadventures of Cate Blanchett and her brood. And it has one humdinger of a Final Bad Guy Death.
Our heroes are not the archetypal western heroes, and that is part of the charm of the movie. Maggie is a strong woman, sure; but driven by an intense maternal urge to protect and reclaim her child. She's an empowered female character, but her empowerment rises out of necessity, and is not contrived. Her husband died, leaving the farm and her family to her; independence and strength is a necessity, and her journey to retrieve her daughter makes sense when framed against her history. But Buffy or Ripley she ain't. Her gun-toting is minimal, and though she does do a fair amount of gunplay toward the end, her strength doesn't spring from violence.
Tommy Lee Jones's Jones—Maggie's father—is a flake. He's a bad-ass, but a flaky bad-ass. His was a refreshing character, a little alpha male mixed with Kramer. Jones isn't necessarily a sympathetic guy; he abandoned his family after all, and Howard should be given credit for not dressing these deep wounds up with a ribbon. Maggie hates Jones, and it is necessity that brings her back to him. What Needs to be Done governs our two protagonists, and their sojourn is made more dramatic by the spectacular bastard that is Schweig's Pesh-Shidin.
This guy is up to no good, and the make-up job done on Schweig is really solid. A crooked, buck-teethed maw of a mouth, craggy flesh, and malevolent eyes—it all forms the witch doctor into a great villain. Add in the fact that he basically runs around slaughtering families and stealing their daughters, and Pesh-Shidin is a dude you're just craving to see "get his."
The movie moves along at a nice clip, considering it's about fifteen minutes north of two hours. Because it's one long chase, with a few impasses thrown at our heroes for good measure, the suspense is enough to carry the viewer along on momentum. Plus, the climactic showdown at the end ends the affair on a thrilling note.
What kept The Missing from treading truly unique ground were some glaring Hollywood trademark clichés.
First, The Law of the Mandatory Presence of the Precocious Cute Kid. Howard desperately tried to convince the audience that it made sense for Maggie to take her nine year-old girl on a deadly hunt for a murderous band of kidnappers, but this guy ain't buyin' it. What mother in their right mind would potentially sacrifice two daughters in the unforgiving frontier? Dot the character wasn't terribly annoying, and Jenna Boyd, the young actress, is quite good, but her very presence made ZERO sense. It's enough to rip you from the warm arms suspending you in disbelief.
Second, The Law of Stupid, Ignorant White People. Hey, I'm not saying white people aren't stupid or ignorant, especially in the olden days, but Maggie's ignorance made no sense. When she's treating the son of the father-son tandem of Kick-Ass Indians that show up to help with the hunt, she acts as if the kid's a dying Martian. Jones makes some snide remark about Native American physiology (they have green blood, or something to that effect), and Maggie even warns Dot about contracting diseases. Please. This was so forced, and seemed to be written up as a nice little post-modern object lesson for the audience. Of course, we're shown early on in the film Maggie makes a living treating Indians of all persuasions, so her squeamishness is nonsensical.
And finally, The Law of the Character Who Wasn't Supposed to be Strong and Brave, But Gosh Whaddya Know? She Is!. Lily is set up as a weak-kneed pretty girl in the beginning, but eventually become a shrewd, courageous fighter, even in the face of ludicrous evil. That's all well and good, but you can see this one coming.
In the end, none of this is enough to derail an engaging and entertaining movie. Ron Howard strikes me as a real auteur of good, fun, involving theatre that is never stratospheric in its noteworthiness (don't get me started on the decent, but wildly overrated A Beautiful Mind). The Missing keeps up the tradition. Oh, I forgot about Willow. That movie rules.
This two-disc set brings a lot to the table. Despite the lack of a commentary track (pbbbttt!), there is much to be had on the second, extras-only disc. The bonuses are very Ron-centric, which I like. Howard is extremely forthcoming about his process and his influences, and his easy-going personality makes him that much more accessible.
The high points include his early, short films, starring Clint Howard himself. Howard uses these as a jumping-off point in his monologue about his love for westerns, which is divided into separate parts and tagged as "featurettes."
Bona fide featurettes include spots on the evolution of the story of the movie, the actual filming, casting the film, the score, and a bit about the Apache language. For the most part, each doc is burly and well-done; a nice collection.
Rounding out the set is a load of cut footage. It's amazing how long this movie could have been. Three alternate endings were mercifully cut; each sports a truly ludicrous ending that might have porked the whole movie.
The film looks nice in a 2.40:1 transfer, and holds up well in many of the darker scenes, particularly the Final Bad Guy Death Scene, which is gloriously vivid. Colors are limited to gritty, earth tones, as would be expected in a western (excepting a real trippy sequence following Jones's drugging). The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is strong as well, boasting a nice James Horner score. The discrete channels kick in nicely at the end.
Don't go in expecting to be moved by its wild originality, and The Missing should prove to be a fun night with a fun film.
Not guilty. But keep that damn little girl at home next time!
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