RIORI Vol 3, Installment 82: Ron Howard’s “The Missing” (2003)

The Players…

Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Evan Rachel Wood and Val Kilmer.

The Story…

Being a single parent—needless to say such—is a tough, often thankless job. At its worst, sometimes not even a rewarding one. This can be said especially when a family is splintered.

Maggie is a frontier doctor, a healer on the fringes aiding anyone who needs her help. Her rigid patience knows no illness. But when her estranged father Sam rides into her farm—a man very mixed up about who he is and why—her patience is tasked.

Maggie is not thrilled about his out of nowhere visit. Sam abandoned her long ago, and she’s tried to provide for her family as best as he didn’t. She tries to chase him away, but he came calling from exile for a very specfic purpose.

That purpose is made known when Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily goes…missing.

The Rant…

Here’s a milestone. Well over 100 movies scanned here at RIORI and never once did a western cross my path. I think that says something, either reflecting my tastes or The Standard bows to cowboys and Indians. I often don’t.

Westerns. Never been a big fan of the genre. Sure, I enjoy a good oater now and again. I fact, I have a few select movies. The list is short because when it comes to this particular genre, I’ve had to sift through a lot of trail dust to find a gold nugget. Namely, I don’t “get” most westerns.

It’s been said that the western movie is the genre that just won’t die. Funny phrase, considering how many of such films built the backbone of summer blockbuster season from the 70s until now. Think about it. Westerns were a hip thing post-war until the early 70s until a rogue shark took the bite out of them. Ha ha and shut up. If you want to get technical, the longest running program in the history of broadcast media was Gunsmoke. A radio drama in the 40s that evolved into a TV series in the 50s. The show ran until 1975. By the math Gunsmoke was the longest running series in the history of a serialized programs. That’s over a quarter century. Granted, Gunsmoke wasn’t a movie, but its long run illustrated the appeal of the western. Even The Simpsons has yet to catch up.

So why won’t the western die? I think it’s because the genre is very homespun. It’s based on truth and imagined truth that could’ve only happened in America. Sure, other cultures have their signature histories to draw from when it comes to filmmaking. The samurai film comes to mind. India has its Bollywood. There’s the “wire-fu” police action flicks in China. The myriad war movies from countries all over the globe (a prime example: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot illustrating the exploits of a reluctant Third Reich submarine crew). All are made inherent to their own unique culture. The American western is no different. Consider this: John Wayne could not have been born in Belgium. Marion Morrison maybe, but not the Duke.

That being said, the reason the western won’t roll over and die from a rattlesnake bite is that it’s a uniquely American genre. Sure, there have been lots of western plots lifted from foreign films (eg The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful Of Dollars, etc), but the transplant is couched in a scenario that is distictly American. The gunslinger as knight, exchanging the blade at the hip for a pair of sturdy Colts in the holsters. It ain’t exactly swords n’ sorcery, but the idea hangs on myth, legend and truth. Historical escapism, if you will.

Maybe this displacement and ideation with the western is the notion of the lone hero, serving king and country. The almighty “law.” America never had knights, samurai or stormtroopers (not the Star Wars kind, you dip). Warriors who swore fealty to their masters, bound by a sense of honor to guide them. Now it’s understood that the western idealized the notion of the lone gunman, a solitary force for good against corruption trampling the common folk. If you’ve read your history (and sure as hell I didn’t), most fabled lawmen were less than savory characters. Heroes not. I mean, Bat Masterson got his name for pistol-whipping felons rather than shooting them outright (might be viewed as virtuous, but it sure had to hurt to twitching). The real Jesse James was a merciless crook, not some Robin Hood (prob’ because there was no real Robin Hood). Hell, even the virtuous Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a gambler. As far as cinematic entertainment goes, most of our Old West “heroes” were scoundrels and scofflaws before seeing the light. Such as it were.

Perhaps that’s the trick why the western movie won’t roll over and die. Paired with the faulty notion of honor against evil and being a (mostly) unique American concoction of history mixed with legend that holds its appeal. Probably not much different that the occasional period piece by Kurosawa. After all, a ronin works for money, not to honor the emperor. I don’t think supporting your local sheriff has much pull on presidential policy. But in the final analysis, we plop down our ducats for popcorn and trail dust. That’s that. Entertainment. Uniquely ‘Muricun. Pass the sarsaparilla and nachos.

And me? I feel the issue I take with westerns is most seem repetitive and carbon copy; the tropes are almost always front and center. Sure, cinephiles rave on about Clint’s spaghetti years, the Duke’s powerhouse, revisionist stuff like Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit (and to an extent, his first leading role Tall In The Saddle, the meta western). High Noon is a classic for its social commentary. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid for it’s irreverence. Unforgiven for being just plain bad ass. But people get in a twist over the classics. The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, the aforementioned Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” These are all high watermarks, if not boilerplate. And aren’t they really few and far between?

Truth be told, in the heyday of westerns a saturation point reached a fever pitch in the mid-50s until the late 60s. Blame the godly presence of the Duke and the vicarious appeal of mean ol’ Clint. We remember the good stuff fondly and forget about trash like the recent Lone Ranger debacle. Memory sees with a blurred lens.

Why I ask? Why is there such a narrow window of successes in westerns? I mean, they do happen. Even a blind squirrel blah yadda yak. Because the good sh*t regarding westerns buck the trend. Face it. What I’ve learned from watching westerns with my father from childhood into adolescence, a great many of the movies retread over one another. The tropes are dyed in steel wool. Loner cowboy, seething villain, gunplay, plots involving kidnapping/treasure/the natives being restless, etc. I feel 90 percent of westerns are a revolving door, and the only reason the genre refuses to die is because it buoyed by the above gold standards. It’s kinda like reverence for Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” Great song, but what else? Flash in the pan and all that it delivers. Comparing that to westerns we’d all like to hear “867-5309/Jenny” over and over again than the repetitive catalog of Counting Crows. Talk about a long December.

Hey. Even I’m not totally immune to the lure of a good, unique hoof-in-mouth. I may be a cynic, but I’m a movie fan first. Second. Sorry, my cynicism overrides all. Surprise. Now sit still or else I peel off more duct tape. Struggling will only make it hurt more.

So. The westerns I’ve truly taken to heart? I mean barring the biggies already mentioned here’s the short list and why. Mine’s a very short list. Snap out of it, and please wipe the Cheetos residue from your chest. Thank you.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. It’s the “greatest hits” package of westerns. Every trope, gadget and cliche litter this little gem. And I love it. The cast is awesome (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and a refeshingly emotive young Kevin Costner). There’s a lot of humor, sometimes winking. Lots of flashy gunplay. A despicable, heavy villain (Brian Dennehy). A rather tricky plot, too. You don’t really get the stakes until well into the second act. It’s a satisfying slice of western hodgepodge, even if you don’t dig westerns. Silverado is a post-modern western that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. I recommend it for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Red River it ain’t, but yee-ha all the same.

Peter Hyams’ Outland, a sci-fi take on High Noon. A lot of folks back in the day panned Outland as a rip-off, despite it’s timely tale of subjugated laborers with no union support as well as starring my main man Sean Connery. But it retains a certain charm, soft High Noon in outer space. Talk about frontier territory. I know, I know. The setting is a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io (mining and westerns go together like PB and J), so there’s an eye-roller. A funny one. We also have 007 as a disgruntled marshall. Marshall, not cop. Regional police force, transient. Drifter? Peter Boyle as the tyrannical general manager, always turning a blind eye to corruption (which feeds his wallet). And Connery’s O’Neill having something to prove, if not against the corrupt system then to himself. And his girl grizzled Doctor Friday in the form of Frances Sternhagen who’s tired of the sh*t afoot at Con-Am 27 who lends a hand. Sounds like a western to me. It’s best to watch this B-movie pastiche as not a SF movie but…, well, you know. Outland is revisionist, post-modern western. It has that going for it, which is nice.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. ‘Nuff said.

Notice none of those three movies were cut during the halcyon days of Hollywood’s Death Valley days. Silverado was released in 1985, and Outland in 1980 (the tail end of the SF boom thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope). Saddles dropped in ’74, a year effectively removed from the days when John Wayne and Clint chomping on a beadie were long gone. That’s how my mind works, even after seeing the “classics” of the genre. And I only caught High Noon for the first time on Amazon Fire last month. Good movie. Slow learner.

In the longview, seeing the classic westerns preps you for seeing the post-modern ones. They stink of a history there, be it Vaseline streaked across the the lens of memory (historic as well as cinematic). But it creaks the door open, invites curiosity. Help yourself. Westerns can be a melange of fun, revisionist history, recalling young America as lawless and on the fringes. Using too much dynamite paired against making the decision to name a lone wolf Two Socks. These touchstones are a patriotic reminder and appeal as to why the western genre just won’t die.

I’m not anti-western, but such movies and all their retreads better try real hard to reel me in. It’s too bad, but there’s a lot of dross to sift through regarding most westerns. Most folks don’t have the patience and simply look for the tin badge.

Loss leader. Based against the above criteria, it was kinda like…

Maggie (Blanchett) is a frontier doctor. A healer to the locals. From bloodletting to amputation to infected tooth extraction she does it all. Not that she’s comfortable with it, nor her small family either. She could do better. But it pays the bills, and she’s very good at her practice. Maggie feels her work is essential to keeping her fragile family together.

Mentioning fragile, one day Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Jones) wanders onto her farm with no fanfare. She’s displeased, this wastrel daring to ride into her life of career and quaint domesticity. A world away from the whirlwind of her youth that Sam invited.

An uneasy alliance is granted, with Maggie’s beau Brake (Eckhart) does the Christian thing and lets Sam crash in the barn. Under his watchful eye Sam lets Brake in on some science; he didn’t come here on some whim. The wind blew him here, to protect his lost family.

Brake hears Sam out, and figures he means well but is also full of crap. Brake feels his resolve is enough to protect his adopted family. But from what? Unsure.

Brake’s daughter Lily (Wood) can’t stop bemoaning her mixed family’s life arrest. If Maggie is such a gifted healer, why the hell are they all stuck in the middle of nowhere? The city beckons, with opportunity and away from all these diseased Indians. Lily soon has her fill and bolts. And disappears.


Sam sniffed at something, so he asks of his estranged daughter to join together and go find Lily. Because who took Lily is far worse than any infected teeth that need pulling…

I won’t lie to you (much), but I caught The Missing in its first theatrical run. It was 15 years ago, and memories get blurry. When I was sifting through potential RIORI subject matter via Box Office Mojo and The Numbers The Missing popped up. By its budget against its gross I was surprised how much of a mediocre tally the film received. It was a Ron Howard movie, after all. And Opie rarely lets an audience down.

I recalled digging The Missing. Then again I was hopelessly hooked on Valium and whiskey at the time, so my memory of the show might’ve been a bit hazy. I remembered Jones as a wannabe Apache. I didn’t remembered how I got home from the multiplex. Let’s just say I was glad my apartment didn’t have a pool in the backyard.

*takes the life jacket off*

Anyway, my fractured memory recalled The Missing being pretty good, despite what the Tomatometer claimed. And me not being a big fan of westerns, the fact the movie left a positive impression that rekindled my memory here. A woozy impression, to be sure, but also inviting enough curiosity to take a chance and watch it again. Standard be damned?

15 years can be a long time, especially without downers as a crutch. Let me address you wastrels burnt out on weed for the umpteenth time at the local midnight viewing of Rocky Horror, stuff can look at lot clearer when you wipe off your metaphorical eyes. So I bellied up, took a squeegee to my bleary, doubtful eyes and tackled The Missing for a second time. And this time I paid attention. So here’s what I saw.

It was a different kind of movie this time around. What I once saw as engaging turned out to drag. Being under-initiated with the so-called “nuances” of westerns, this time out and many moons later I found my attention wavering. To the point, it took four nights to watch The Missing, interrupted by the need to sleep. In my bed, instead of on the couch with the remote stuck to my hot little hand, Cheez-It crumbs littering the carpet. Well, okay. The crumbs were already there (my nonexistent Dustbuster broke).

As do the tropes that can stink up a decent, left-of-center western. Must sound like my sophomore, somewhat sober viewing of The Missing made for a fallen-scale, lousy viewing experience. Not at all and not really. Turned out my muddy memory was too off the mark. True, a lot of Missing was derivative, but I found it was all about the packaging. Yet again, like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Missing does possess all the bored hallmarks of a typical western, the kind I bitched about. The movie’s a bit too straightforward at times, but its saving grace is that it retains its own signature. There is a lot of “displaying” here. We do have “show” but its often interrupted by too much “tell.” But when “show” comes into play, Missing can be exciting as well as harrowing. A lot of Missing is staging. Stages set for big deal ugliness (eg: Brake’s undoing, Lily’s captivity, Kilmer opening fire on Jones, etc), but it sometimes feels like it takes for-bloody-ever to get there. This is a tale of urgency overall; a teen girl REDACTED by a psycho Apache. She must be found at any cost. Provided that cost can be cashed via tracking shots. And Jones playing cowboy and Indian.

Stuff like that made Missing all gummy, slowed things down and placed the necessary urgency on pause. Watching Missing recalled the minor gripes I had with some of Howard’s other efforts; fun films that stretched, as if to allow breathing room to assure the audience that all will be well, stay in your seats. Putting aside the dark matter of Howard’s more grim features like Missing, there is always this “sunniness” that can’t be escaped. An optimism against ugly circumstances. That helped buoy the film, considering that Missing possessed the stinging crime of sluggish pacing. I often had a feeling of “get on with it” watching Missing, yet I could not but help feel a need to pay attention, no matter how much of a chore it was (pacing, remember?). That Howard optimism kept me watching, the seed planted in back that I knew things would work out, but how?

That was the hook that kept me engaged, over the boring, stereotypical western gimmicks that could either float or sink a genre film. Wait. That isn’t exactly accurate. Missing played out as a western, but at heart it was a mystery. Missed that the first time. And I liked how the mystery unfolded, better than the trite western movie gobbledygook. One had to shift their view to appreciate Missing. All the western schtick was eyewash, blurring the corners and denying the conscientious western fan…well, everything. I say again, Missing ain’t no oater. It’s a whodunnit, and for all the better.

I liked how the mystery unfolded. To be sure, the movie drags a lot, but only against western expectations. I heard once on NPR that it’s better to watch the first six Star Wars out of order so to appreciate the series better. Namely, don’t watch The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi straight through. Mix the chapters up (can’t recall the order suggested. Sorry you geeks). Twitch out the already established expectations. Might let you see the Jedi vision quest in a different light. Watching The Missing is kinda like that. Once you understand all that staging is bleeding western movie and all the snores they create, drop the sandwich and get your Hercule Poirot on. Follow the clues as to why Lily was nabbed and follow the trail. Hey, Tommy Lee Jones is your wingman. Should be a cool trip.

And Jones was quite the trip. Weak and willing. Shiftless and transient. Hangdog a mile wide, almost as practice for No Country For Old Men. Whipped dog, shuffling back into his past. And that hair, either a really good wig or a dedication to the role. Whatever. We get the impression that Sam had a more fulfilling experience with his adopted Apache family that with his daughter. Little wonder why Maggie has such contempt for her absentee dad. And Jones appeared to have been doing okay. Maudlin, but okay.

Okay. So Jones is Jones. Fine. But here Cate is Cate, and very well played as such. Her Maggie is fragile without being weak. Uncertain without waffling. Driven yet quiet. Desperate in the best way to characterize Maggie. Not sweating bullets over the fate of Lily, but more like the Talking Heads’ rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” (how’s that for left field?). Battling against the unsure. The stakes are dire, and Maggie is barely holding her own, but she never breaks. Just bends, usually under the reluctant sway of estranged dad Sam. She’s a strong lead with a long shadow.

The only carp I have with Maggie’s character could be laid at the feet of the scenarists. Meaning how often does she need to hammer on Sam about him being a crappy father? It borders on whining, especially in the light that Sam is trying to reach out and amend (despite his dubious motives). At the outset we get it; Sam went off the reservation. And Maggie never got over it. It’s a significant plot point, to be sure, but her nagging does a lot to undo her independent strength at the lead. Maybe there was a motive there, but I just didn’t see one. Hers is again a minor carp, but it was like a splinter in my heel. I could walk, but not very fast. It f*cked up the pacing. Sorry.

Missing made me understand why Eckhardt is a better better supporting actor that a lead. Remember him as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight? Exactly and there you go. Ignoring the glowing praise I gave him as the lead in The Core (that flick’s goofiness let his on screen awkwardness shine), every other film I’ve seen with the guy as leading man was clunky and off-putting (and a lot of his flicks have showed up here a RIORI a bit too often). He’s a lot better as a sideman. His Brake (telling name) for the first act reels the desperation in. A calm voice of reason. Things go off the tracks pretty fast with Missing. It’s good to have a person to put things in perspective, even if your valorous efforts results in you ending up as smoked REDACTED. In the endgame, Eckhardt’s character set the pace for the hunt for Lily, and a fire under Maggie’s ass. Preserve the family, at all costs. Brake showed the way into the plot. Eckhardt should be hired for more roles like this, even at the cost of reeking of bacon. Watch the thing.

Even though Howard’s films can get edgy, pointed but still remain fun, Missing doesn’t pan out that way. It’s bleak, downtrodden and outright brutal at times. I know I said that the majority of Richie’s films possess a shine of optimism, that all will work out well in the end. That plays out here, too, but it’s all hazy. We know Lily will get rescued, that much is certain. This is a Ron Howard film, after all. But everything is delivered in a gauzy fog. There’s this pall cast over the movie, definitely casting curtains of the hope. Missing is a meditation on rape culture. How females are subjected and subjugated as entertainment. Granted, Lily is dragged into a market of snatch for sale, but such a plot device (book or movie) is a prevalent and popular one, and not well wedged into Howard’s oeuvre. Namely, it gets icky.

Rape culture is a vicious, pernicious plot device applied in many non-R rated flicks regarding how the male/female dynamics may play out in relation to…well, relationships. Superbad is a fine example; score booze to score babes. The convo between Jake and Farmer Ted after the party went tits-up in Sixteen Candles. All of the original Porky’s. The threat of Lily getting sold off is a major plot point for Missing, if not the plot point. Hell, she’s the MacGuffin here, which sets the story in motion. Ugly. We’re set up to believe this is a family drama, and we get some rube photographer ready and willing to take a casual snap of Chidin’s harem. Giggle, giggle. This is indeed ugly, cleverly undoing Howard’s PG-13 history. I’m not sure that even Howard was aware of the hornet’s nest he kicked. It undid the shine, made Missing creepy and left fans uncertain. I liked that, but I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The Missing is Howard’s first uncertain picture. The optimism is there, but only on the fringes. The casting was secure, as was the straightforward story. The pacing was mostly okay (when Cate didn’t sermonize). Framing was impeccable.

So why did I feel unsatisfied?

Maybe this time out I was clean, able to see the chinks in the armor. Missing was still a solid movie, with its moments and its head-scratchers. It was awkward at times, like about what was trying to be said. Was it a family drama, a rescue mission, post-modern western, a meditation on rape culture? Not sure on any fronts. Guess that’s the movie’s major flaw. It didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

Neither did I. But I liked it. Still liked it.

Pass the roofies.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but with blinders. There’s a lot going on here if you’re observant. And if you’re not, have another. At least Eckhardt doesn’t hang around long. Not as long as Jones’ hair.

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m afraid we have just enough food for a family.” The table is set.
  • Blanchett’s facial emoting is incredible. Never overwrought.
  • “You’ll live.”
  • The blanket scene. Something about it.
  • “I don’t know her name!”
  • The production quality isn’t as “grainy” here as with most post-modern westerns. Might be a result of modern camera work.
  • “Let him go. I don’t care.”
  • Jones growls too much. At times it gets hard to understand his lines.
  • “No.”
  • As always with a Howard film, great cinematography.
  • “They are enlisted men.”
  • Dot is a junior badass.
  • “I asked you if you wanted some sage on your fish.” Oddly, this moment seemed to capture the feel of the entire film.

Next Installment…

Aaron Eckhart (sigh) is a shill. Not that time this time. He’s going to the line for big tobacco, and bid all Thank You For Smoking. Cough.


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