After winning the Academy Award for directing “The Deer Hunter,” Michael Cimino quickly demolished his reputation with the stupefying four-hour Western, “Heaven’s Gate.” Kevin Costner followed up his directing Oscar for “Dances With Wolves” with the similarly grandiose futuristic Western, “The Postman.”
The latest victim of this post-Oscar infatuation with wide open spaces is Ron Howard, who won his Academy Award last year for directing “A Beautiful Mind,” and has now succumbed to the wide-screen-Western jinx with “The Missing.” What’s really missing here is a script that might have given the film any distinction.
At least Cimino and Costner were aiming high when they created their debacles. Howard’s new picture is ponderously ordinary, pointlessly overlong at 130 minutes, and so poorly structured that it seems to end half a dozen times. On the plus side: The cast is efficient, relative newcomer Jenna Boyd makes a strong impression, and Salvatore Totino’s cinematography makes the most of the New Mexico locations.
The title refers to a group of teenage girls, kidnapped by 19th Century Apaches, who are followed by the mother (Cate Blanchett), the grandfather (Tommy Lee Jones) and the independent younger sister (Boyd) of one of the victims (Evan Rachel Wood). The Indians mean to sell the girls in Mexico if they can cross the border.
What makes the situation potentially interesting is the curious relationship between Jones, a deadbeat dad who has gone native, and Blanchett, a born healer who hasn’t seen him in years and doesn’t understand why he has taken up Native American religion and magical practices.
“What did you see in them you didn’t see in us?” she asks. He doesn’t have an answer; neither does the script by Ken Kaufman (“Space Cowboys”). The role is mostly an excuse for Jones to wear his hair long, give advice about native superstitions (including a form of Apache voodoo that quickly becomes risible in this context), and demonstrate the tricks of Indian warfare.
Val Kilmer, as a disgruntled Army general, and Aaron Eckhart, as Blanchett’s doomed lover, have even less to do. Neither has enough screen time. Also wasted are Max Perlich, as a would-be rapist, and Clint Howard, as a small-town sheriff with more urgent things to do than pursue the kidnappers.
Even actors of this stature can’t stir life into such skimpy material; James Horner’s vapid score works overtime to fill the emotional gaps. The movie opens with Blanchett using an outhouse in the snow, then pulling the one remaining tooth of an old woman who resists paying her for the privilege. The grittiness is meant to demonstrate a fresh realism in Howard’s approach, but it comes off as showy and gratuitous.
The storyline of “The Missing,” taken from a Thomas Eidson novel, “The Last Ride,” does hint at elements of two of John Wayne’s best Westerns, “The Searchers” and “True Grit.” But it’s considerably less compelling than either, and the writer’s almost propagandistic portrayal of demonic Indians suggests the stereotypes of another era. Why did Howard & Co. want to make this movie, and what audience were they aiming for?
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com