The Chicago Times called it 'the best and toughest western since 'Unforgiven'.'

Has an acidic period tone, a respect for the reality of violence, and a refreshing dearth of superhuman heroics and easy triumph

'The Missing' is a dramatic film in every sense of the word

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Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer
Duration: 130 minutes

If you're reading this then you're not exactly computer illiterate. Or perhaps you are, heinously so, and stumbled upon by merely trying to operate your microwave. Either way, it's not my place to recommend sites, but - please - wander over to The Missing's home page. There's surely nowhere else which can shamelessly eke these words out of the poor vernacular, only referring to the principle goodies and baddy: lying in wait is horror so unspeakable it will change them forever! So unspeakable that the director Ron Howard won't hesitate to show it repeatedly, and then some more, and a few other times for bad luck over the stretch of the film. This itself is one little error, as if you let the audience see the creature of their discomfort once, they've no use imagining the goriest fastasmagorical monster anymore. And, genuinely spooky as Eric Schweig can be, he's not worth ignoring the Jaws rule that horror has to be suggested rather than shown.

Still, as far as Cowboys n' Indians films go, this isn't anywhere near the worst of the pile and not a bad investment if you can also afford a quick pre-movie lobotomy and so spare yourself the unnecessary trouble of turning off your brain as the house lights dim. The script is by no means the pinnacle of originality, but the headstrong woman routine is deftly performed and the organic Indian mumbo-jumbo doesn't crop up as much as you might fear. The footage is either jaundiced by the sun or washed with blue rinse for hex appeal and huge chunks of fashionable Blair Witch forestry help engineer the ironic, clammy pain of dread. Not being keen to do much anew Ken Kaufman's screenplay has more than a whiff of John Ford's The Searchers, but the film handily absolves itself by quoting its literary roots.

There's a lot to be said for the many techniques of acting, and a lot more for the methods that work. Hollywood employs all types from Dustin Hoffman/De Niro versions of Stanislavsksiism to Jim Cagney's ACME pathos device ("just say the lines, and mean them"). Olivier's quip to Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man has become an oft-forgotten gem ("why don't you just act?"). But in The Missing, aside from praising Blanchet and Tommy Lee Jones for their thespian achievements, the list of possible praise looks thin. Perhaps congratulate the composer for not contributing to the cluttered repertoire of the world's more luckless orchestras; you can thank Salvatore Totino (director of photography) for some very pleasant pictures of New Mexico and believe entirely in its pre-Real McCoy setting, but also want to shake him violently by the neck for another relentless quest to outdo the Lord of the Rings' rolling shots, panning shots and overly clichéd galloping-horses-with-swooping-helicopter shots. It's not just that it has been done before, it's been done to death and since reexhumed for a bad joke.

Howard's procedure for generating spooky sensations is the tired, tried and tested idea of lots of trees and subsequently losing your daughter in them. The violence isn't in-your-face (we have Mel Gibson's cruxifestival for that) but some of the acts are savage and even the face of the leader of the Bad Indians is pretty gruesome. But for all his scars and scary dentures, souvenirs of his caddery and creepy hocus-pocus (Evil Injun type) he's just a man, undoubtedly misunderstood and insecure, and anyway so far less grotesque than the Jennifer Lopezian fiend you'd envisaged earlier.

The needless, apologetic political correctness that harks back to Patriot Games (then not the real IRA, and not real Injuns too) can stray from ineffective to unbearable and there's a staggeringly high chance that you'll permanently forget why we ever paid lawyers in the first place.

The most frightening idea the film provides is that the Ron Howard wasn't even asked what The Missing was about, and I can't offer anything resembling a quasi-satisfactory explanation. A drama about a woman? No, about a girl, who's been snatched from the woman. Perhaps it's about an Indian (read Native American, and see Tommy Lee Jones) who'd returned to his daughter, the woman, not in order to but still staying in the vicinity long enough to find the daughter of the said woman (Cate Blanchett) whose daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) was snatched by other Indians (native, American, unrelated). Or maybe it's about the second daughter (played by Jenna Boyd) who shows up all the adults for the proud fools they are and carries the film on her shoulders then on. There's the wry possibility that it's a historical-fiction-based-biographical-account of the genuinely spooky baddie, a witch-doctoral Red-Indian with a penchant for bludgeoning his enemies with what looked like a giant squash (apt, eh?) though this lame suggestion is only worth mooting to make the point that, in The Missing, the sheer purpose of it all was somehow overlooked by the proof-reader. That said, it should have more than a sneaking resemblance to Thomas Eidson's The Last Ride though I doubt any book could get past publishers armed with characters even flatter than the pages on which they're engraved.

If there's no meaning to the characters there's only so much rolling landscape the eye can take before the mind calls it quits, and even Blanchett's august turn as the mother defiantly loathing her father but nevertheless searching en famille for her daughter can only halfway alleviate what has to be a quiet disappointment to what stacked up as a comfy yarn. Perhaps the direst charge to this is that if it is dry of meaning, The Missing is parched of humour. But if you readily agree, then you haven't visited the website.

Review by Daniel Masmanian

DVD Extras: 2 alternate endings. 5 deleted scenes. 5 Ron Howard featurettes. Outtake reel. 3 short films. Photo gallery.

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