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Ron Howard knows how to make movies. Stirring dramas like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind please the crowds. But The Missing reveals a crack that’s visible in Howard’s career as a director: his stories are too cinematic to be genuine.

One-Sided Family Reunion

Jones photographs well in Howard's cinematic style
Jones photographs well in Howard’s cinematic style

The Missing opens on a graphic piece of old-West dentistry. While the details of the cabin, the dental implements, the pain killers might be authentic, the scene is pure cinema. It’s designed to get a wince from the audience, which it does wonderfully.

The dentist is Maggie (Cate Blanchett), a New Mexico healer in 1885. A stranger rides onto her ranch one day, a white man with Indian attire, and her hired hand-cum-suitor Brake (the magnetic Aaron Eckhart) keeps a wary eye on him. The visitor turns out to be Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Tommy Lee Jones), who lived as an Apache for years. He has come to build a bridge to his daughter and granddaughters.

For her part, Maggie doesn’t want a reunion. Her dad made his decisions, and she had to live with them. Now she just wants to be left alone. But when her eldest daughter goes missing and Brake turns up dead, she accepts her father’s help (with the twitch of an eyebrow from Blanchett, which speaks eloquently about her mixed emotions).

Doin’s A-Transpirin’

Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) was kidnapped by a “brujo” named Chidin (Eric Schweig, wearing a monster-face appliance that keeps him from emoting). He plans to take Lily and his half-dozen other captive girls south, where he will sell them to Mexican buyers.

The episodic story brings in several subplots. A photographer is captured by the brujo and his men, and in spite of his best efforts to please, he can’t seem to land on his captors’ good side. An army brigade (with Val Kilmer filling a small role) led by Apache scouts encounters Maggie and Sam, at first mistaking Sam for a hostile Indian, possibly a suspect in the kidnappings. They head off in the wrong direction, leaving the family to press on by themselves.

They encounter a wounded Apache warrior — an old friend of Sam’s — and his son, who have also lost a woman to the kidnappers. They join forces, hoping to free their captives, or at least buy them back.

Showcase

The best reason to see The Missing is its great cast and good performances. Blanchett is wonderful as a woman torn by conflicting emotions. Of course, she’s driven by her need to find her daughter, but the meat of her role comes from her ambivalence toward her father. She is a strong woman, but that comes as much from necessity as from her own nature. One senses her strength cost her her innocence, and that she still holds her father accountable.

Jones pines as the regretful yet stubborn father. He’s more of an archetype than Maggie. He feels less fully formed. No doubt he’ll be praised for his work, but I wish there were a little more going on with him. Eckhart’s character is intriguing for someone who lives only in the first reel. He too is torn by Maggie’s ambivalence.

Another good reason to see the movie is the scenery. Different parts of the movie take place in very different landscapes. The Missing is a tour of the American frontier (it was filmed in New Mexico, where it is set), from Maggie’s high-plains ranch to the barren desert trails of the kidnappers.

Missing Something

Still The Missing is too much a movie. It’s not an authentic trip in a time machine, nor is it an emotional maze between a father and a daughter. It has these elements, but they serve the plot, which takes far too prominent a role. The movie never lingers on something deeper because it’s too busy rushing through all the developments. There is a lot of talent at work and the resulting movie is fine, but it lacks that spark of intangible greatness.

As an example, look at the villain. Though he has a name, Chidin is not a character. He’s Evil incarnate, a conflict-generating plot device. Why does he do what he does? We don’t know, except that if he didn’t, there would be no movie.

Looking back, at Howard’s career as a director, one can see the same thing. Although A Beautiful Mind it was dramatic and cinematic, it didn’t seem very genuine. “Where’s the math?” is a gripe I could relate to. Backdraft, The Paper, Ransom, all are standard-fare movies that succeed within the boundaries of the American movie-making tradition. None of them seem to break free into explorations of style or emotion or artistry.

Howard’s movies define American movies of our time. The flip side is they lack the freedom to do more.