Director : Ron Howard
Screenplay : Ken Kaufman (based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Tommy Lee Jones (Samuel Jones), Cate Blanchett (Maggie Gilkeson), Evan Rachel Wood (Lily Gilkeson), Jenna Boyd (Dot Gilkeson), Aaron Eckhart (Brake Baldwin), Val Kilmer (Lt. Jim Ducharme), Sergio Calderón (Emiliano), Eric Schweig (Chidin), Steve Reevis (Two Stone), Jay Tavare (Kayitah)
Perhaps as a way of proving his range as a director, Ron Howard has decided to follow up his multiple-Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001) with The Missing, a moody and arduously serious western psychodrama. For every bit of emotional resonance Howard managed to wring out of A Beautiful Mind’s tale of the intermingling of genius and psychosis, he fumbles with The Missing’s story of familial loss in the bitter cold desert southwest circa 1885.
Based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, The Missing positions itself as a revisionist genre film, which is hardly making any inroads considering that the western has been revised and reworked so many times that its basic tenets have become primarily familiar in their neo-versions (which is why Kevin Costner’s old-fashioned Open Range felt almost new in its retro sentimentalism). The two major revisions featured in The Missing is a female heroine using violence to solve her central problem and a muddy graying of the old “good white settlers, bad Indians” divide.
Cate Blanchett stars as Maggie Gilkeson, a “good Christian woman” and single mother who works hard to maintain a small cattle ranch in New Mexico and also does duty as the local healer (in one of the film’s modern twists, she’s given a level of sexual liberation usually denied women in such settings). One day, her long-lost father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who deserted her family when she was a little girl in order to live with the Indians, shows up out of nowhere looking for … well, it’s not entirely clear, at first. He needs her medical assistance, sure, but he’s also looking for some kind of redemption and forgiveness from his estranged daughter, who is so embittered at his having left her that she can hardly contain her vitriol.
Well, Papa Jones comes in handy a few days later when Maggie’s eldest daughter, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), a sullen teenager who feels she was “born in the wrong family” because she’s more interested in pretty clothes and newfangled gadgets like the phonograph than milking cows, is kidnapped. So, with her feisty 10-year-old daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) in tow, Maggie heads out with Jones to track down Lily and those who kidnapped her, who are on their way to sell her and seven other women into slavery in Mexico.
Lily’s kidnappers are a motley collection of Indians and white men led by Chidin (Eric Schweig), an ugly-as-hell witch doctor who is the closest thing the movie has to pure badness. In the old pre-politically correct days, this would have been a simple scenario of savage Indians stealing away a white woman and the heroic settlers who go out to save her—in essence, a captivity narrative, the oldest in American mythology. There would have been all kinds of traumatic panic about miscegenation and the sullying of a glorious white virgin at the hands of savages (all of which, of course, John Ford brilliantly deconstructed almost 50 years ago in his 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, a clear inspiration).
But, the filmmakers here are intent on showing us how enlightened they are in their revisionism of the past’s racist mythology, so the kidnappers are not only a mix of white men and Indians, but the Indians are renegade scouts from the U.S. Cavalry. In other words, it is made quite clear that these Indians are bad news not because they’re savages, but because they were turned into savages by the U.S. Army, which makes a brief appearance in the form of a regiment of bigoted soldiers who gleefully loot the house of a couple of dead settlers and steadfastly refuse to help Maggie because there are orders from high take them elsewhere. Even more than that, the savagery of the kidnappers is not primal, animalistic sort that might lead to rape, but is rather driven by monetary greed—these guys just want to make a buck, and they’ll kidnap anyone, white women and Indian women, to do so.
This is all fine and well, if not terribly original or nearly as enlightening as the filmmakers would like us to believe. Unfortunately, though, The Missing is not primarily about the relationship between Native Americans and encroaching white settlers; rather, it is about the relationship between Maggie and her father, and it is here that the film flounders hopelessly. Despite good performances by Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones (who has never looked more gnarled and sullen), the dynamics of this strained father-daughter relationship remain weak and unfocused. We know that there will be an eventual thaw between then that will lead to some form of dual redemption for both, but both characters remains so sketchy except in their dogged determinism to rescue Lily that it’s hard to care much about it.
Howard makes every attempt possible to keep the momentum in the story going, but The Missing drags on for a good half hour longer than it needs, which is always a clear sign of a filmmaker desperately trying to turn sub-par material into a meaningful epic. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Any Given Sunday) supplies plenty of painterly vistas and composer James Horner fills the speakers with esoteric chanting, but it isn’t enough to take us away from The Missing’s tired and self-congratulatory revisionism and uninteresting character dynamics.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick