“A captivating tale.”
The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process.
One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane.
It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that.
Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.
In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative.
The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline.
Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller