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THE MISSING (article first published : 2004-06-3)

Based on The Last Ride, a novel by Tom Eidson set in 1885 on snowy farmland and harsh desert plains in New Mexico, this new film by Ron Howard, who won an Oscar for directing A Beautiful Mind, has met with mixed reviews abroad.

Some have labelled it merely competent, a throwback thriller. At least one critic has lauded it as the finest western since Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Unforgiven.

I fall between the two schools of thought.

Certainly it's captivating, if unnecessarily long at more than two hours. And it's specifically of note for some great cinematography, splashes of gritty realism and, perhaps most importantly, three strong female roles, from across the generations, which is not common for this genre of film.

The story is that of a tough, hard-working "healer" and frontier rancher, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), whose life with her two daughters - teenager Lilly (Thirteen star Evan Rachel Wood) and headstrong 10-year-old Dot (Jenna Boyd) - is disrupted when her estranged father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), appears out of the blue one day.

Maggie has not seen him for 20 years, when he deserted her and her mother to carve a new life with an Apache tribe. She allows him shelter for the night but refuses to forgive Samuel, much less let him worm his way back into her life.

Then Lilly is captured by a gang of Apaches and white reprobates, who kidnap young women to sell as slaves - and neither the nearby sheriff (Clint Howard) nor the head of the cavalry (Val Kilmer) is able to offer much help.

Maggie is then forced to turn to her father for help in tracking and trying to stop the gang before it reaches the Mexican border. And so begins an adventure which, reminiscent of John Ford's 1956 western The Searchers is, as Howard has said in an interview, ultimately about family and how, across years of damage and silence, blood still holds.

Blanchett is excellent as the candid, powerful Maggie and is matched by the ever-reliable, here understated Jones as long-haired Samuel. Wood and Boyd are also on fine form.

Another standout is Eric Schweig, playing the nasty, ugly gang leader, a man with supernatural powers and a mean streak that includes shoving sand into Lilly's mouth and tellng her that's how life will taste for her in future.

The Missing may not be the Oscar-worthy epic some might have expected, but it makes for solid entertainment and stands head and shoulders above another of this year's Wild West period dramas, the dreary, laughably earnest and massively over-rated Cold Mountain. Rating: 8/10 - Billy Suter




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