Following the overblown success of A Beautiful Mind, it seems karmic that Ron Howard’s The Missing opened without a spectacular advertising campaign. The two films are probably as good as each other though, for what that’s worth.
In New Mexico, 1885, Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), medicine woman and solo mum, is pretty much a tougher version of Dr. Quinn. Her estranged father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who left one day because he thought it would be much more interesting to hang out with the redskins, returns and is promptly told in which lake he can go jump. Then she finds out that her eldest daughter has been kidnapped by evil Injuns by stumbling across her new boyfriend all stuck and trussed up in a cowhide, hanging over a smoky fire. In those days there were no tetrapack milk cartons to stick missing people on, and the authorities prove themselves completely useless. So Maggie puts aside her differences and rides out with her pa and her younger daughter, even though they all know that catching up to the murderous kidnappers will be the least of their problems.
It’s a bizarre combination of genres: a revenge Western set during a chase, the emotional heart of which is the workings of the family – Maggie’s reconciliation with her father and her reunion with her daughter. There are enough nice little shooting scenes to call it an action movie, but the Apache mysticism of the kidnappers’ leader (Eric Schweig) lends a supernatural quality that approaches horror. Indeed the bad is the ugly in The Missing.
Jones fits into his role like a worn pair of moccasins. As in The Fugitive he is at his monotonous best as a hunter, and his leathery face is as charismatic and emotive as the craggy trail they ride on. On the margins of both his family and the Indians, loners don’t come much more lonely than this. Blanchett was built for this strong role and doesn’t disappoint, but it’s her younger daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) who really captivates.
Crucially, Howard is sensitive to the Apache Indians, neither vilifying nor glorifying them outright. The kidnappers are wicked men, but they have also been wronged, and care is taken to present both Indians and colonisers of different sensibilities, thus avoiding the insulting, one-dimensional natives of a schmaltzy movie like Windtalkers. The result is a good if depressing movie that packs a real emotional punch.
Like the silly scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus invents the table, the oohs and aahs of the hoi polloi when an gramophone is wheeled out or a telegram wired have no place in the film. I despise such anachronistic jokes at our ancestors’ expense, and I wonder if authors of the nineteenth century had such a tasteless propensity for laughing at the technological simplicity of their forefathers.
But this is a minor criticism of an established trope. My only real problem was its length – at 137 minutes it could have been half an hour shorter. It’s no Unforgiven, but The Missing stands well alongside other good modern Westerns like Tombstone, and leaves The Quick and the Dead for dead.
Directed by Richie Cunningham