Rich, tense and exciting, The Missing works as both a gripping thriller and lovingly-made western. Cate Blanchett is exceptional as a mother-of-two eking out an existence in the Old West, when her long-estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) appears. After years living with Indians, he's initially unwelcome, but becomes essential when Maggie must rescue her kidnapped daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) from renegade Apaches hoping to sell her as a slave. Guilt, family and faith are explored, as their trek brings them closer together.
Riding in the hoofprints of John Ford's The Searchers, The Missing is neither as brave or uncompromising as the classic John Wayne western. Few films are. But A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard acted alongside the iconic cowboy in his final film, The Shootist, and this is a stately, old-fashioned effort in that tradition. If you hate horse operas, you're not likely to like it - although it's at least as taut as Howard's kidnap thriller Ransom, and is unusual in having a strong role for a woman, which Blanchett executes like Katharine Hepburn reborn.
"BLANCHETT IS QUITE BRILLIANT"
By turns bitter, desperate, pained-yet-persevering, she is quite brilliant - her meeting with Jones crackling with an energy and anger that in a wiser world would unquestionably win an Oscar. Jones is no slouch, his eyes carrying the weight and regret of someone who believes, "There's nothing a man can do to protect his family from himself." Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Blanchett's bit of stuff, while, as her second child, Jenna Boyd gives a performance of raw intensity all the more astonishing because she's ten.
There are snipable elements - a never-worrying flash flood; an eagle guiding Jones to safety - but the action is executed with efficient brutality, there is genuine, hide-your-eyes menace to Eric Schweig's villain, and the photography is stunning. Westerns are almost inherently unfashionable and this hasn't fared especially well with US critics or audiences. But in 20 years it will probably be regarded as Howard's finest film. Only then will The Missing be found.