Although Ron Howard's directing career has had some notable successes ("Apollo 13"), there's been times when his choice of material is questionable. So goes "The Missing", a slightly spiritual, slightly supernatural western that outstays its welcome at nearly 2-1/2 hours. Based on Thomas Eidson's novel "The Last Ride", the picture is set in New Mexico during the late 1800's. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a doctor, living with two young daughters, trying her best to make a living and raise a family.
In walks Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who is actually Maggie's father, and abandoned her family years ago to go live with the Indians. She wants nothing to do with him and both she and her live-in boyfriend, Brake (Aaron Eckhart) send him packing. But when oldest daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood, recently in "Thirteen") is kidnapped by a band of army deserters led by an Apache mystic named Chidin (Eric Schweig) - and likely headed South to be sold into slavery - Maggie has to seek her father out for help. Of course, the local sheriff (Clint Howard, no surprise!) won't offer any assistance.
So, Maggie, Samuel and little daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd, quite good) head South to try and catch up to the group who took Lily before they cross the border. During the trip, of course, Maggie will attempt to make peace with her father and the unlikely trio will, despite working with little luck on their side, get back on the trail of Lily. Despite Jenna Boyd's intense performance, there's really nothing for a 10-year-old character to do in this kind of film aside from be around to get into various forms of trouble (guess who gets their foot caught when a sudden flood overtakes a canyon).
Still, with a nearly 2-1/2 hour running time, there's opportunity for commentary on Western life or the addition of other elements, none of which are really added or touched upon, keeping the focus almost entirely on the search-and-rescue. Supernatural/spiritual elements are added in in a way that feels disjointed and like an afterthought. Salavtore Totino ("Changing Lanes")'s cinematography is interesting, though, making the barren landscape seem beautiful and yet, remarkably eerie.
While the film is noticably slow at times, the film's pace is helped by the performances - both Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett turn up the intensity, if almost to try and counteract what is otherwise a pretty drawn-out tale. Jones is especially good - maybe the best he's been in a couple of years. Blanchett doesn't seem to have a role she can't be at least moderately convincing in. Val Kilmer even shows up for a couple of minutes. The performances are the only thing that add a sense of tension and energy to the film, as the drawn-out running time (there's moments where the film could have ended, but doesn't - and just keeps going) and rather lackluster screenplay certainly don't add any.
Certainly, this is the darkest fare that Howard has so far attempted, but the material could have used more work. I wouldn't have minded if the story would have cleared the 2-1/2 hour mark if there were more depth added to the film's portrayal of the West, or if the characters were better developed. The performances here are certainly terrific, but unfortunately, I didn't find a great deal else to like here. "Open Range" was certainly the finer Western of 2003.
VIDEO: "The Missing" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is an excellent transfer at times, while other scenes don't look as good. Sharpness and detail are often quite nice, as while definition isn't always entirely consistent, some scenes boast very good fine detail and clarity.
The transfer's main problem is edge enhancement. While not present throughout the entire film, there are several scenes where edge enhancement is visible to the point of being moderately distracting. Thankfully, most scenes appeared free of it, but when it did appear, it was a concern. Compression artifacts and print flaws were not spotted.
The film's bleak color palette appeared accurately rendered and striking, with no concerns. Black level also appeared solid, while flesh tones looked natural.
SOUND: "The Missing" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's gunfights aren't as intense-sounding as that of Costner's "Open Range", but they do have an echoy quality that leads one to believe the sound effects were actually recorded out in this kind of landscape. Surrounds aren't put to consistent duty, but they are tastefully used in some scenes to add tension to the moment, throw in some effectively creepy ambient sounds or offer sound effects to try and add a greater sense of envelopment to the action. There's some great moments of sound use here, but the whole thing comes across as somewhat restrained, as more ambience and activity could have been added and still seemed appropriate. Sound effects are well-recorded, while dialogue and James Horner's occasional score seemed clean and clear. The only other audio track is a French 2.0 track.
EXTRAS: The first DVD offers a series of trailers, including "The Missing", "Hellboy", "Spider Man 2", "13 Going on 30" (a cute Jennifer Garner picture that seems like an amusing take on Hanks's "Big"), "Resident Evil 2", "Panic Room", "The Statement", "Something's Gotta Give", "Big Fish", "Devil's Backbone" and "The Mothman Prophecies". I was expecting a Ron Howard commentary to go along with the feature, but was surprised to not find one included.
The second DVD in the set is where the supplements can be found. A series of featurettes are nicely done, giving one an idea of the scope of the production without being too overly complimentary or promotional. "The Last Ride" is a short overview of the film, with Howard spending most of the running time discussing what attracted him to the project, with some brief chat from producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Ken Kaufman (who sort of resembles Ron Howard's brother Clint, only with long hair) and others.
Next up is a 29-minute "making of" documentary, which is a good, straightforward overview of the making of the film. Once again, Howard is the featured participant, leading the viewer through the process of visualizing the film (picking cinematographer Salvatore Totino), working in rather miserable weather conditions and other issues such as set decoration, casting and working with the actors.
Rounding out the section are two shorter pieces: one is a 5-minute featurette on the score, the other a 15-minute overview of the film's casting. Finally, there is "Apache Language School", an interesting 5-minute piece on the Apache culture and language, which features interviews with Howard, Tommy Lee Jones and the Apache translators who worked with the filmmakers.
"Outtakes" offers 2-1/2 minutes of sorta funny bloopers, mostly involving animals who won't stay in place. "Alternate Endings" includes not one, not two, but three alternate finales, but with no optional commentary from the filmmakers about why these were deleted. Howard doesn't offer any discussion of the 11 deleted scenes, either. There's a few strong character moments and subplot material here - it's too bad that these were deleted instead of some of the other material in the final film.
"Ron Howard On..." is a series of short interview pieces that has the director discussing various topics, including John Wayne, editing, westerns and the filmmaking process. In one of the pieces, we see clips from Howard's "early Westerns" - home movies he did when he was young.
Finally, a photo gallery section is set into three parts: "Cast", "Location" and "Production".
Final Thoughts: "The Missing" does offer very good performances, but they're in service of a screenplay that feels underdeveloped. Pacing could also have been improved. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides very good audio/video, along with a few insightful supplements. Maybe a rental for fans of the genre.
The Film ** 1/2