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Review: 'The Missing' a powerful work

Ron Howard, Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones make terrific trio

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

The Missing
Jenna Boyd and Tommy Lee Jones in "The Missing."

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(CNN) -- Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard says he's always wanted to make a Western -- and he's got some personal memories of the genre, having starred with the Duke himself, John Wayne, in the 1976 film "The Shootist."

He almost got his chance with the upcoming epic "The Alamo" (opening in April 2004), but dropped out of that project, reportedly due to disagreements over the film's budget.

He ended up doing "The Missing" instead -- and although this film is a far cry from your traditional cowboys-and-Indians saga, it's apparent that Howard is a big fan of legendary Western director John Ford. There are elements of one of Ford's best films, "The Searchers," to be found in "The Missing."

Cate Blanchett plays Maggie Gilkeson, the quintessential pioneer woman living on a remote ranch in New Mexico in 1885. Her estranged father, Jones, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a typical low-key performance, deserted his family years ago and has been living among various American Indian tribes.

A horrible crime

Maggie is living with her two young daughters, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd) and having an affair with one of her ranch hands, Brake (Aaron Eckhart), when her father shows up on her doorstep, hat in hand. She fiercely rejects his efforts at making peace and sends him on his way.

The next day Brake and the two girls ride off to check up on some cattle. By nightfall they have failed to return. Maggie panics and races out to find them.

What she discovers is horrifying: Brake and another ranch hand have been brutally mutilated and murdered. Her youngest daughter, Dot, is found wandering around in shock, and the older girl, Lilly -- it soon becomes clear -- has been kidnapped.

The Missing
Cate Blanchett plays a frontier mother whose life is turned upside-down when her boyfriend is killed and a daughter kidnapped in "The Missing."

The closest sheriff and the military leaders at a nearby Army post can only give Maggie empty promises about "looking into the matter." But the increasingly panicked mother realizes that if she waits for them, Lily will be lost forever. As she's making plans to ride out on her own, her father once again shows up and offers his help.

Reluctantly, realizing it may be her only chance, Maggie accepts his proposition to follow the kidnappers before they disappear into Mexico. Refusing to stay behind, Dot also joins in on the search.

It soon becomes apparent that a group of renegade Indians (former Army scouts) and a couple of low-life white men are terrorizing the area and stealing teenage girls for a slave trade operation. This information makes Maggie and her father even more determined to bring Lilly back and the two -- very reluctantly -- begin to bond.

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This is where an interesting twist comes in. The leader of the renegades (Eric Schweig) is a psychopathic killer with mystical powers. This blend of the supernatural with a Western period piece is unusual but historically accurate: beliefs in mystics, shamans and holy men were deeply embedded into the culture of American Indians of that time period.

However, while the fact that the leader is also a psychopathic killer makes things more dramatically interesting, it does stretch the credibility factor.

The film is based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson. The screenplay was penned by Ken Kaufman, who is a long, long way from his previous credits -- "Space Cowboys" and "Muppets From Space." But Kaufman gives the characters great depth, and you gradually find out about Maggie's past, the choices she's made, and how they have transformed her into the woman she has become. We also learn about Jones and his history in the same slow-paced way.

Howard has infused this film with a wonderful sense of time and place, and provided a stunning atmosphere. You get a real feel for how people lived in that period -- their struggles and the harshness of their day-to-day life.

As usual, Blanchett is a marvel to behold. Is there anyone or anything this woman cannot play? Not a conventional beauty, Blanchett radiates personality in every role she plays. You never see her acting -- she just becomes. Jones knows how to play the reluctant hero, and once again he delivers.

The ending of "The Missing" is rather predictable, but by then, the film has been boosted by the atmosphere and the performances. Powerful and provocative, "The Missing" is another masterful production from one of the industry's best directors and two of its best actors.

"The Missing" opens nationwide on Wednesday, November 26, and is rated R.

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