I’m not sure why a gorgeous, thrilling horror/western/adventure like Ron Howard’s The Missing didn’t win over audiences as much as it should have upon release, but it’s one of my favourite in the genre, the best film overall from Howard (IMHO) who has always felt like an uneven, ‘play it safe’ Hollywood filmmaker to me and one of my go-to films to revisit. This films plays it anything but safe, blanketing a very personal, desperate set of protagonists and their struggles with a cloak of menace, mysticism and marauding danger around every corner of a threatening New Mexico brush-scape. Cate Blanchett gives one of her most raw, affecting turns as single rancher and single mother Magdalena Gillekson, a woman with a great deal of trauma in her past who is simply trying to live the isolated homesteader life and raise her two daughters (Jenna Boyd and Evan Rachel Wood) right, with the help of her friend, ranch-hand and sometimes lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart). Their lives are first upheaved with the reappearance of her ne’er do well father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), a halfbreed nomad who is disgraced most people in his past, and then with the arrival of a terrifying witch-doctor (Eric Schweig) who kidnaps her eldest daughter and makes off with his gang of Apache and white human traffickers towards the Mexican border to sell her and a whole bunch of other girls they’ve taken. So begins a journey of reconnaissance, rescue and reconciliation as Magdalena, Samuel and the younger daughter voyage across wintry plains of New Mexico into barren badlands to square off with this evil cabal of predatory psychopaths and return the stolen girls to their homes. These two characters that Blanchett and Jones play fascinate me; she’s cold, bitter and has clearly been robbed of some of her humanity in the past. He’s an outcast loner with a life story so dysfunctional that his Native name literally translates into English as ‘shit for luck.’ Their struggle to salvage any kind of father daughter relationship between them is almost as daunting as the brutal rescue mission they undertake, and the narrative pays just as much careful attention to character development and human interaction as it does to action and violence. Schweig is utterly despicable as the evil Apache shaman, a hateful, volatile, ugly as fuck rotten bastard monster who haunts the film like the very wind over the terrain itself with his unholy magic spells and sudden outbursts of shocking violence. The supporting cast is full of rich talent including Elizabeth Moss, Steve Reeves, Jay Tavare, Ray McKinnon, Max Perlich, Simon Baker, Clint Howard and a surprise cameo from Val Kilmer. As good as everyone is overall, my favourite performance of the film goes to Jenna Boyd as the youngest daughter.. it’s hard enough to find child actors who will be able to to the minimal amount of believable emotion in a role like this, but she is uncannily talented and her potent terror, fierce resilience and undimmed love for her mother and sister woven into her work simply knocked me flat. The late James Horner composes a score that tops the list of prolific work from him for me, an ambient collection of classic yet somehow eerie western motifs that play along the sideline for the first two acts and then swell with orchestral release later when the finale rolls around. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino makes spooky use of the wide open vistas, craggy, labyrinthine geological structures and captures the rugged natural beauty of the region splendidly. I wish Howard would do more edgy, off the beaten path and thoroughly dark pieces of work like this because for my money he’s never been better. Perhaps that’s why this wasn’t received so well though, it’s a harrowing far cry from what we’re used to seeing in Hollywood westerns, full of black magic, dark deeds, horrifying imagery and bloody, unforgiving violence. It has a soul too though, present in the bittersweet relationship between its main characters and the ruthless resolve they fuel in each other to seek retribution against the forces of darkness at their door. This is a great film and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, I think it was just either misunderstood, ahead of its time or people simply couldn’t reconcile the heavier aspects. I’ve recently acquired the only existing Blu Ray put out by Shout Factory which is an absolutely gorgeous release that includes an extended version with twenty minutes more footage that enriches and deepens this story wonderfully. One of the best films of the last two decades.