Although Ron Howard's directing career has had some notable successes ("Apollo 13"), there's been times when his choice of material is questionable. So goes "The Missing", a slightly spiritual, slightly supernatural western that outstays its welcome at nearly 2-1/2 hours. Based on Thomas Eidson's novel "The Last Ride", the picture is set in New Mexico during the late 1800's. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a doctor, living with two young daughters, trying her best to make a living and raise a family.
In walks Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who is actually Maggie's father, and abandoned her family years ago to go live with the Indians. She wants nothing to do with him and both she and her live-in boyfriend, Brake (Aaron Eckhart) send him packing. But when oldest daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood, recently in "Thirteen") is kidnapped by a band of army deserters led by an Apache mystic named Chidin (Eric Schweig) - and likely headed South to be sold into slavery - Maggie has to seek her father out for help. Of course, the local sheriff (Clint Howard, no surprise!) won't offer any assistance.
So, Maggie, Samuel and little daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd, quite good) head South to try and catch up to the group who took Lily before they cross the border. During the trip, of course, Maggie will attempt to make peace with her father and the unlikely trio will, despite working with little luck on their side, get back on the trail of Lily. Despite Jenna Boyd's intense performance, there's really nothing for a 10-year-old character to do in this kind of film aside from be around to get into various forms of trouble (guess who gets their foot caught when a sudden flood overtakes a canyon).
Still, with a nearly 2-1/2 hour running time, there's opportunity for commentary on Western life or the addition of other elements, none of which are really added or touched upon, keeping the focus almost entirely on the search-and-rescue. Supernatural/spiritual elements are added in in a way that feels disjointed and like an afterthought. Salavtore Totino ("Changing Lanes")'s cinematography is interesting, though, making the barren landscape seem beautiful and yet, remarkably eerie.
While the film is noticably slow at times, the film's pace is helped by the performances - both Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett turn up the intensity, if almost to try and counteract what is otherwise a pretty drawn-out tale. Jones is especially good - maybe the best he's been in a couple of years. Blanchett doesn't seem to have a role she can't be at least moderately convincing in. Val Kilmer even shows up for a couple of minutes. The performances are the only thing that add a sense of tension and energy to the film, as the drawn-out running time (there's moments where the film could have ended, but doesn't - and just keeps going) and rather lackluster screenplay certainly don't add any.
Certainly, this is the darkest fare that Howard has so far attempted, but the material could have used more work. I wouldn't have minded if the story would have cleared the 2-1/2 hour mark if there were more depth added to the film's portrayal of the West, or if the characters were better developed. The performances here are certainly terrific, but unfortunately, I didn't find a great deal else to like here. "Open Range" was certainly the finer Western of 2003.
VIDEO: (from the review of the original release:) "The Missing" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is an excellent transfer at times, while other scenes don't look as good. Sharpness and detail are often quite nice, as while definition isn't always entirely consistent, some scenes boast very good fine detail and clarity.
The transfer's main problem is edge enhancement. While not present throughout the entire film, there are several scenes where edge enhancement is visible to the point of being moderately distracting. Thankfully, most scenes appeared free of it, but when it did appear, it was a concern. Compression artifacts and print flaws were not spotted.
The film's bleak color palette appeared accurately rendered and striking, with no concerns. Black level also appeared solid, while flesh tones looked natural.
The Superbit edition of the film presents it in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality on the Superbit edition provides a somewhat better presentation overall. The main concern that seems to have been addressed with this release is the edge enhancement. While there are still a few instances of slight edge enhancement occasionally visible here, most of the film seemed free of it. This Superbit edition also provided somewhat improved sharpness and detail, as a greater amount of fine details were visible. The differences in definition weren't major, but they were apparent.
A few traces of pixelation appeared, but the print appeared fine, with no wear or other faults. The film's fairly earthy color palette once again appeared striking and accurately rendered. Flesh tones looked accurate and black level appeared solid.
SOUND: (from the review of the original release:) "The Missing" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's gunfights aren't as intense-sounding as that of Costner's "Open Range", but they do have an echoy quality that leads one to believe the sound effects were actually recorded out in this kind of landscape. Surrounds aren't put to consistent duty, but they are tastefully used in some scenes to add tension to the moment, throw in some effectively creepy ambient sounds or offer sound effects to try and add a greater sense of envelopment to the action. There's some great moments of sound use here, but the whole thing comes across as somewhat restrained, as more ambience and activity could have been added and still seemed appropriate. Sound effects are well-recorded, while dialogue and James Horner's occasional score seemed clean and clear. The only other audio track is a French 2.0 track.
The Superbit Edition provides both the prior Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation and a new DTS 5.1 audio option. Both options sounded largely the same. During some of the more active passages, sound effects and ambience sounded slightly less "speaker-specific" and more enveloping in DTS. The DTS track also offered a tad more detail to the sound. Other than these minor differences, both tracks seemed the same.
EXTRAS: Given that this is a Superbit release, all extras from the prior release have been dropped.
Final Thoughts: "The Missing" does offer very good performances, but they're in service of a screenplay that feels underdeveloped. Pacing could also have been improved. The Superbit DVD edition of the film does provide some picture quality improvements and some slight audio quality improvements. I wouldn't recommend an upgrade for those who own the prior edition, but those are seeking a purchase and don't care about the extras that are on the prior 2-DVD edition may want to seek out this release instead.