Ron Howard is the Hootie and the Blowfish of filmmakers. The guy who made such award-winning blockbusters as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind is safe, bland and crowd-pleasing, the cinematic equivalent of melba toast. Thanks to his background as the star of safe, bland, crowd-pleasing TV shows like Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show, Howard has managed to pack his films with stars like Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Jim Carrey, Mel Gibson, and in the case of his latest, The Missing, Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. He gets big studios to give him big budgets, surrounds himself with a talented crew, and churns out predictable, obvious, uplifting fare about characters overcoming things, learning about each other and growing as people.
Howard is the very definition of middle-of-the-road, with none of the flair and inventiveness of that other great, popular, middle-of-the-road filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. Nothing is ever particularly wrong with Howard's films; they hit all the right buttons and make all the right moves. But, even in his best efforts, they're rote and basic, usually only standing out by the force of the performances and the sheer willpower of Hollywood's effort to anoint Howard as the next, well, Steven Spielberg.
The Missing is no different. Howard's filmmaking is generic enough that he's a genre chameleon, so this time around he brings us a western. With the critical and relative commercial success of Kevin Costner's Open Range, it's tempting to point to some sort of resurgence for the genre. But, while Costner brought a genuine love and respect for the genre to his decidedly old-school film, Howard is all craft and no emotion, making his movie less like a western than a reenactment of a western.
Blanchett stars as Maggie Gilkeson, a frontier doctor in 1885 New Mexico, who lives with her two daughters by two different men, girly teen Lily (Evan Rachel Wood, wasted) and tomboy Dot (Jenna Boyd, the life of the film), and a ranch hand (Aaron Eckhart) who serves as a surrogate husband/father figure. A mysterious stranger calling himself Sam Jones (Jones) shows up looking for medical care, dressed like an Indian but clearly a white man. He turns out to be Maggie's long-estranged father, who left when she was a child to go seek adventure with the natives.
Maggie quickly sends her father away, but only a day later, Lily is abducted by a roving band of Indian kidnapers, deserters from the Army's program of Indian trackers. They're led by an evil shaman and are rounding up girls to sell down in Mexico. The sheriff can't spare any men and the Army is headed in the wrong direction, so who's the only person who can help Maggie get her daughter back? Why, it's that estranged father of hers. How convenient.
Maggie, Dot and Sam set out to find Lily. Along the way, Maggie and Sam slowly bond, as she comes to accept his practice of Native American mysticism, and he starts to atone for abandoning his family. The meandering search goes on for far too long (the film runs 130 minutes), especially when you know what the end result is going to be from the start. The story, adapted from a novel with the much better title of The Last Ride, bears more than a passing resemblance to the John Ford classic The Searchers, with John Wayne tracking niece Natalie Wood, kidnapped by Indians. Of course, the Duke wanted to off his kin for turning Injun; Maggie just wants her daughter to come home.
Howard does his best to offer a balanced portrayal of Native Americans; the villains have been corrupted by the Army and are abetted by white men. Likewise, Sam gets two of his nice Indian buddies to help out in the search for Lily. There's an attempt to do more than simply politically correct the western genre: At one point when Sam encounters an Army Indian, he looks him over and says with contempt, "You must be the pride of your people." "And you of yours," the Indian responds, just as contemptuous of white Sam's co-opting of native culture.
There are far too few of these flashes of insight; mostly the film is pretty shots of countryside and slow moments around campfires. Maggie and Sam's reconciliation seems forced to create thematic resolution; actually most of the movie seems like Howard just setting his ducks in a row, consulting some How to Make a Western in 23 Easy Steps book. He's followed the formula to the letter, and the end product is a well-crafted, lifeless bore.