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In the wilderness of New Mexico in 1885, Maggie (Cate Blanchett) is raising her two daughters, teenager Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and the younger Dot (Jenna Boyd), working the tough land as best she can and doing a bit of medical work, healing the odd local. The only man in her life is hired hand and would-be husband Brake (Aaron Eckhart), until her estranged father Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) turns up unexpectedly, after 20 years with the Apache people. Maggie wants nothing to do with him, but when the ruthless slave trading shaman Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig) kidnaps Lilly, Maggie reluctantly finds that her father is the only one able to help bring Lilly back, in a wild country and up against a mixed group of Indians and whites, all as vicious as each other. Pesh-Chidin's gang is heading to Mexico to sell Lilly and several other young kidnapped girls, unless Maggie and Jones can somehow stop them.

Review by Louise Keller:
A handsome and gripping large-scale drama with mystical themes, The Missing takes us deep into the American South West in 1885 for a journey whose perils are both physical and emotional. Superbly crafted and with a splendid cast that allows our connection to be more than superficial, Ron Howard has made a film where the central focus is on women, and whose challenge is the daily struggle for survival.

An intense and emotionally dense tale that translates effectively from the pages of the novel to the screen, the heart of the story lies in the fractured relationship between Cate Blanchett's tough, pioneering Maggie and her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) whose newly adopted life as an Apache has destroyed every ounce of faith she ever had in him. She is a devout Christian whose belief in men has floundered, leaving behind bias and distrust; he is a man disillusioned by life whose newly found faith has led him onto a road of redemption.

Blanchett has that amazing ability to 'become' the character without leaving a single trace of 'the actress' behind, and here she is the epitome of grace as she endures hardships both physical and emotional. Blanchett, like Maggie, is strong, and her strength filters through - whether she is chopping wood or offering emotional support to her daughters. Lee Jones makes a surprisingly credible Apache Indian, and his dry sense of humour (highlighted by the effective use of the Apache dialogue with subtitles) grows on us, as we begin to understand his beliefs and his motivations. In fact, much of the film's charm is about the Apache culture, and the understanding we glean from its people.

Expansive, bleak and sparse desert settings look splendid through the cinematic eye of Salvatore Totino, and James Horner's lyrical score (with effective use of pipes) is fittingly grand. There's oodles of charisma from Aaron Eckhart who plays Maggie's lover; my only complaint is that his screen time is far too short. At 10 years of age, Jenna Boyd impresses greatly by her highly sensitive performance as Maggie's younger daughter Dot. Eric Schweig, splendidly disfigured by prosthetic face plates, rotting teeth and a mass of stringy, black hair, makes a terrifying adversary; the scene when he plants a hex on Maggie is most effective, with succinct editing allowing the eerie notion of mystic transference. There's tension throughout, but it's the emotional subtext that has greater impact than all of the physical perils.

There's a handsome DVD package of special features including two alternate endings, five deleted scenes, photo galleries of the cast, production and location, plus a reel of outtakes. It feels incongruous watching the outtakes - these are usually reserved for comedies. So it is with added resonance that we watch Cate Blanchett breaking up on camera, having difficulty getting on her horse, battling with a gun that refuses to shoot properly and there's a priceless moment when a curious bird calmly deposits its business in front of a nonplussed Tommy Lee Jones (who is lying on the ground).

Of most interest is the section called 'Ron Howard on...', in which the director talks about the filmmaking process, editing, conventions of westerns, his love for westerns and... he talks about three 'home' movies he had made as a lad. He explains how prior to making The Missing, in a conversation with his father, Howard mentioned he had never made a western previously. 'Sure you have,' said his father, who promptly sent him the three short films. These are also included on the DVD.

(PS This film is not to be confused with the 1999 Australian film of the same title, directed by Manuela Alberti.)

Published: July 22, 2004

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(US, 2003)

CAST: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer, Sergio Calderon, Eric Schweig, Steeve Reevis, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker,

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

SCRIPT: Ken Kaufman (Thomas Eidson, novel)

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

PRESENTATION: widescreen

SPECIAL FEATURES: Three of Ron Howard home movies; two alternate endings; five deleted scenes; featurettes with Ron Howard; outtake reel; photo gallery

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Col TriStar Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: July 21, 2004

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