Dir: Ron Howard. US. 2003. 135mins.

The versatile Ron Howard stirs up a melange of story elements in The Missing and the result, perhaps surprisingly, is a consistently engaging tale that is part stoic western, part spooky thriller and part dysfunctional family drama. Selling such a hard-to-categorise item to mainstream audiences won't be easy for worldwide distributor Sony, in the US (where the film opens this week over the Thanksgiving holiday period) or in the international market (where rollout begins early next year). But Howard's reputation coming off Oscar triumph A Beautiful Mind and star Cate Blanchett's growing marquee value should still attract older moviegoers in respectable numbers. The $60m Revolution/Imagine production has been mooted as a long shot awards contender; while it doesn't seem likely to take any major prizes itself it might help Blanchett get recognition for her other recent work.

Even with a female character at its centre, the end-of-the-nineteenth-century story, scripted by Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys), looks from some angles like a fairly traditional western (comparisons with John Ford classic The Searchers are inevitable). Blanchett's Maggie Gilkeson is a single mother raising two young daughters on a small ranch in the isolated wilderness of New Mexico. When her estranged father Jones (played by Jones), who has been living with the Apache for 20 years, shows up Maggie at first dismisses him. But when a brutal gang led by a Native American witch (Schweig) abducts teenage daughter Lilly (Wood), Maggie is forced to ask Jones' help in tracking the gang as it heads towards the Mexican border to sell its victims.

As a western, the film captures a sense of the danger and desperation of frontier life and nods to themes like the clash of cultures - and of land rights - between white settlers and Native Americans. Some of the mystical stuff goes a touch over the top, particularly when Jones spins opaque tales to explain why he abandoned his family.

As a thriller, the film delivers some tense - and a few subtly grisly - moments and keeps up a lively pace. To serve other aspects of the story, however, it takes in one chase-and-battle sequence too many, extending the running time to a longish two-and-a-quarter hours.

The family drama feels like the film's primary concern, though, and it is founded on two enjoyable lead performances. Jones (last seen in The Hunted) doesn't stray too far from his usual intimidating persona, but here he resists going over the top with it and adds an appealing note of vulnerability. Blanchett (who recently had Veronica Guerin on release and is back soon in the Lord Of The Rings finale) gives an engrossing performance as the tough but wounded Maggie. In smaller roles, Wood (who recently grabbed attention in Thirteen) makes the most of her limited screen time and Eckhart (Possession) appears briefly as Maggie's ranch worker/lover. Schweig (Skins) is suitably menacing as the villain of the piece.

The landscape of New Mexico is another powerful presence in the film, and it is refreshingly shot, sometimes under snow, to look harsh rather than pretty. Director of photography Salvatore Totino (Changing Lanes) also contributes camera work that nicely emphasises the film's edgier moments.

Prod cos: Revolution Studios, Imagine Entertainment
US dist:
Columbia Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Brian Grazer, Daniel Ostroff, Ron Howard
Exec prods:
Todd Hallowell, Steve Crystal
Ken Kaufman, based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson
Salvatore Totino
Mike Hill, Dan Hanley
Visual consultant:
Merideth Boswell
Costume des:
Julie Weiss
James Horner
Main cast:
Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Aaron Eckhart