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Staring:  Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett.

 

Directed by: Ron Howard

 

Adapted for Film (over coffee) By:  Akiva Goldsman and Ken Kaufman

 

Written By: Thomas Eidson (who wrote the book) based heavily (in my opinion) on a novel by Alan Lamay (1899-1964) who, oddly enough, wrote The Unforgiven (with Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn) not to be confused with Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.

 

The Skinny

 

I think I know what Ron Howard was trying to do here.  I think he was trying to make an “old western classic”.  You know, the kind of movie that you either saw at the theatre as a kid in the 60s and 70s or (like me) watched on Sunday afternoons as a kid in the 70s and 80s.  The kind of movie that either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood stared in.  The kind of movie that Eastwood tried to make with Unforgiven.  The kind of movie where …  well, it had already been done and, despite the excellent acting and reasonably decent plot, this newer version is certainly not the “classic” I think Ron wanted it to be.

 

This movie essentially fails for falling short of what it could have been.  That is, it could have been a good movie.

 

In The Missing, Cate Blanchett essentially plays Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman and Tommy Lee Jones plays her long-lost-loser of a father who left when Cate was but a young girl.  Tommy Lee, who lives (and thinks) like an Indian, returns to his daughter’s life just as (where would stories be without coincidence) his grandchild is captured by Comanches.  It is then up to Tommy to take Cate and her remaining daughter on a quest to find “The Missing” (daughter). 

 

Providing no small amount of depth for these fine actors to play in is the rather constant struggle between Cate and Tommy as she deals with the fact that she hates but needs him and he tries to make ammends without begging.  Cate, of course, hates him  for leaving her and her mother but needs his tried and true knowledge of the land, the Indians (Native Americans) and their ways.  Tommy at first wants to reconcile because he was told to by a medicine man and then grows into actually giving a shit.  Obviously this struggle between the principle protagonists did not need the Western genre to be effective and Cate and Tommy could have played the same parts with equal excellence in modern times, the 15th century or space.

 

However, Ron did choose the Western to tell this story and that allows us to have the leader of the comanches as a nasty witch doctor who is in the process of capturing a number of young women to sell as slaves in Mexico.  The "witch-doctoring" and the "selling as slaves" are both simple plot devices, the purposes of which are all too obvious as one watches this movie.

 

The fact that the women will be sold provides this movie with a way to avoid dealing with the expected abuse that captive women might face.  The fact that the bad guy has magical powers (they really work) gives the creators the ability to fine tune the trailers to look like a bit of a horror flick.  Neither plot device (particularly the magic) tends to move the story forward or do anything to bring out the depth of the characters.

 

Moreover, it was probably the magic angle that bugged me the most with this movie.  Based on the previews I was expecting a very dark and mystical experience set in the old west and what I got was a cowboy movie (that didn't need to be) with a little wierd witch-doctoring thrown in.  While not letting the previews give anything away can result in a positive surprise when finally viewing a movie, the sort of false (or maybe “fuzzy”) advertising that was employed here invariably results in a poor movie-going experience as ones expectations are quashed against the rocks of cinematic eality.

 

Perhaps due to the fact that I felt a bit ripped off by Mr. Howard (or whoever makes the decisions about previews) I did not like this movie very much.  I found the pacing slow, the magic (what little there was) out of sync with the world the movie was set in and the story itself kind of weak. 

 

Maybe I found the story weak because it had been done before in a 1956, John Wayne classic called “The Searchers”.

 

The Searchers is described as follows:

 

“John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to his brother Aaron's frontier cabin three years after the end of the Civil War. Ethan still has his rebel uniform and weapons, a large stash of Yankee gold and no explanations as to where he's been since Lee's surrender. A loner not comfortable in the bosom of his family, Ethan also harbors a bitter hatred of Indians (though he knows their lore and language well) and trusts no one but himself. Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron's adopted son, join a makeshift band of Texas Rangers fending off an assault by renegade Comanches. Before they can run off the Indians, several homes are attacked, and Ethan returns to discover his brother and sister-in-law dead and their two daughters kidnapped. While they soon learn that one of the girls is dead, the other, Debbie, is still alive, and with obsessive determination, Ethan and Martin spend the next five years in a relentless search for Debbie -- and for Scar (Henry Brandon), the fearsome Comanche chief who abducted her.”

 

If you substitute in some modern actors, change the confederate soldier part to “Guy who goes to live with the Indians”, the brother relationship for father-daughter, change the hates Indians to admires Indians, have the (grand)-daughter kidnapped and boyfriend killed and shorten the quest down to a week or two, you have essentially got The Missing. 

 

Now, that may sound like a lot of changes but when you consider (1) how well a racist character would go over these days (and the chances of getting someone of Tommy Lee Jones’ status to play one), (2) the popularity of Dr. Quinn, (3) …… nope, that is about all you have to consider to change The Searchers into The Missing.

 

However, unlike The Missing, The Searchers was destined to become an important movie.  Considered by many to be one of, director, John Ford’s greatest movies (and Ford directed a LOT of movies).  The Searchers was also one of (if not the) only movie where John Wayne played the role of a person of questionable moral character (i.e. a racist).  In playing this anti-hero, Wayne was 20 years ahead of his time as it would not be until the 70’s that Hollywood really got into using the protagonist of moral ambiguity (something we essentially  take for granted these days).  At the time The Searchers was made, the good guys wore white hats and always played it straight.  By the time The Missing came out (2003), on the other hand, having a purely good protagonist would probably be considered a little boring.  The last one I can think of seeing (off the top of my head) was Luke Skywalker and even he gets a bit morally ambiguous in the sequels. 

 

So, overall, I would say that Ron Howard failed to do anything interesting with this movie that was basically stolen and then re-worked for 2003.  Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchette gave great performances but, with the movie being pretty banal, there isn’t much of a reason to watch them at it.  If you absolutely love westerns and must see every new one that is made you may want to watch this movie.  However, if you absolutely love either the principle actors or Ron Howard’s movies, I would say it is rentable.  It is, after all, a good movie from a performance perspective, it just isn't a particularly good Western and I must wonder why Ron decided to make it at all.


 
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