What's missing, gone, vanished almost (but not quite) without a trace from "The Missing" is the Ron Howard most of America has come to know and love. The master sentimentalist has made a dark, menacing film, a lean and disturbing western with some modern subtexts that goes where no Ron Howard film has gone before.
A change like that doesn't come without expert assistance, and Howard got it from his two stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. They play Samuel Jones and Maggie Gilkeson, a savagely estranged father and daughter who've not seen each other for decades but have to jointly face a life-or-death threat.
The combined intensity of these two performances obliterates objections and raises the stakes in what might otherwise have been a standard western. It's powerful enough to create its own reality, and whenever "The Missing" threatens to get sentimental around the edges, the fused energy of their cold fury is simply too compelling to allow that to happen. No film will be going soft while they're in the neighborhood — no film would dare.
Jones has made a career out of these implacable roles, most notably in "The Fugitive," and as he's aged into a face so lined it would scare Botox, he's lost none of his innate aura of menace and danger, the sense that he would as soon kill someone as look at them.
Which makes it all the more thrilling that Blanchett, as gifted an actress as is working today, is his match and more in barely controlled rage. Capable of rising to whatever challenges her screen appearances demand, Blanchett brings the kind of deep and biting anger to her part that only Sean Penn in "Mystic River" has matched this year. Each word she directs at Jones' character is a whip lash intended to cut to the bone, and cut it does.
Those words also come from an unlikely source, Ken Kaufman, whose previous credits include "Space Cowboys" and "Muppets From Space." He's adapted "The Last Ride," a novel by Thomas Eidson, that focuses on the kidnapping of Maggie's eldest daughter, Lilly ("Thirteen's" Evan Rachel Wood) by a band of Apaches and white outlaws who intend to sell her in Mexico to the highest bidder.
There are lapses in "The Missing," uncertain moments when Howard's touch is not as sure as that of Clint Eastwood, who considered directing the script. But, as it did with his earlier "Ransom," the theme of child kidnapping seems to have touched a chord in the director and kept false notes to a minimum. It's as if all the black emotions missing from so much of Howard's work have finally found a place here.
Here is the New Mexico territory, 1885, a place no less godforsaken because modern inventions like the telegram have made an appearance. Working with talented cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who makes this part of the world look epic, unexpected and forbidding, Howard has visualized the West as an especially pitiless place where bad things routinely happen and to do something stupid is to risk having someone die.
No western is complete without a bad man, and one of the things that makes "The Missing" both effective and particularly modern is the nature of its villain. He's nameless in the film, though Samuel Jones refers to him by the Spanish "brujo" and the credits call him Pesh-Chidin, an Apache term that means the same thing: witch.
Today's audiences, aware of alternative forms of spirituality, will be more receptive to the presence of a Native American shaman, a powerful sorcerer capable of clouding men's minds. Convincingly played by a heavily made up Eric Schweig, the scarred and creepy brujo, whose murderous handiwork makes everyone who sees it, audiences included, squirm, is a disturbing, distinctive bad guy who proves to be very much a match for the forces of good.
Before any of this can happen, Samuel Jones has to come back into the life of his daughter, who lives on a small cattle ranch with her daughters and her ranch hand/boyfriend, played by Aaron Eckhart.
An outcast from the white world who's lived among the Apache for decades and speaks the Chiricahua dialect perfectly (the actor learned it, subtitles translate it), Samuel Jones wants to reconcile with the daughter he abandoned and the now-dead wife whose death the daughter thinks he caused. Maggie furiously wants nothing to do with him, letting him know "what you've done, you can't undo."
But when her daughter is kidnapped, people are killed in horrific ways (don't ask) and the Val Kilmer-led cavalry proves ineffective, Maggie understands that as much as she detests her father, his knowledge of Apache ways makes him her best chance to get Lilly back.
Though this rescue-the-white-girl scenario inevitably echoes John Ford's classic "The Searchers," it is more interested in the working out of family relationships, and that includes 10-year-old daughter Dot (well played by Jenna Boyd), a mini-termagant who is very much her mother's daughter. In fact, one of the pleasures of this film is to view father, daughter and granddaughter as a set matched in willfulness.
What stays with you most about "The Missing," finally, is the quality of Blanchett's performance. With a rawboned, angular face that makes her look at home on the land, she experiences every one of the film's variety of emotions right up to the hilt, and the unnerving rawness of her feelings combined with the implacability of her resolve will put your heart right in your throat. You can't ask for any more from an actress than that.
MPAA rating: R, for violence
Times guidelines: Very disturbing villain, murder victims shown in unsettling ways
Tommy Lee Jones ... Samuel Jones
Cate Blanchett ... Maggie Gilkeson
Eric Schweig ... Pesh-Chidin
Evan Rachel Wood ... Lilly Gilkeson
Jenna Boyd ... Dot Gilkeson
Revolution Studios and Imagine Entertainment present a Brian Grazer production in association with Daniel Ostroff Productions, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Ron Howard. Producers Brian Grazer, Daniel Ostroff, Ron Howard. Executive producers Todd Hallowell, Steve Crystal. Screenplay Ken Kaufman, based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Editors Dan Hanley, Mike Hill. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music James Horner. Visual consultant Merideth Boswell. Set decorator Wendy Ozols-Barnes. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times