The Missing—Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer, Aaron Eckhart, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Eric Schweig, Jay Tavare, Simon Baker (2003; Dir: Ron Howard)
At the heart of this story is the strained relationship between Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), a father who abandoned his family years ago to go live with the Chiricahua Apaches, and his grown daughter Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a New Mexico rancher and healer with two daughters of her own. A restless sort, Jones has never been one either to maintain family ties or to stay very close to civilization. “If I stay here very long, I might misbehave. Somebody might have to kill me.” Now that he thinks he’s dying, he is in fact seeking out his lost family to make what modest amends he can at this late stage of his life.
Maggie is fairly blunt about the fact that she has no use for him at all, but she finds that she needs his help to recover her own daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) when she is abducted by a band of white and Indian renegades. Samuel Jones’s knowledge of Indians and the terrain and his ability to navigate and survive in desolate conditions are essential to the pursuit, or Maggie wouldn’t have taken him along even in her desperation. Maggie turns out to be her father’s daughter in the good sense: she has grit, resourcefulness and determination, carrying the small group in their mission by sheer will at times. On the expedition, they come to know each other at last, and they come to some acceptance of each other’s weaknesses. They do eventually rescue the girl, among others. And come to a greater appreciation of Indians generally. And take care of the bad guys. It’s better and more fun than that sounds.
Jones, a native Texan, is really a natural in westerns, with his weathered face and quick drawl. He, like Robert Duvall, has attained a kind of iconic status in the genre, in part from their partnership in Lonesome Dove. Blanchett, perhaps the premier actress of her generation, has never been in a western before, but she’s as convincing at this as she was as such imperious characters as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth or as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. Val Kilmer is excellent in a cameo as the not-terribly-helpful commander of a platoon of cavalry. And Aaron Eckhart seems to deserve better than the small, thankless role he has early in the movie as a foreman and romantic interest for Maggie. Jenna Boyd as younger daughter Dot Gilkesen outshines abducted older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), but much of that may be in the way the parts are written. Jay Tavare and Simon Baker are very good as Katiyah and his son, Apache acquaintances of Jones with more dimension than Indians usually are given in westerns. Canadian Indian actor Eric Schweig, so noble as Uncas in Last of the Mohicans a decade earlier, is virtually unrecognizable as the renegade Apache El Brujo.
In general theme, this is similar to The Searchers, the John Ford classic from 50 years earlier. In interviews, director Ron Howard said that The Missing was basically a remake of The Searchers, and that may be true in the sense that the basic plot involves white people trying to retrieve captured girls from Indians. In broad outline, it’s another of many westerns with a search-for-family theme, but the two movies are based on separate novels by different authors (Alan LeMay and Tom Eidson). And as it turns out, the main characters, their attitudes and the balances between them are very different. The time frame is compressed here, the irrationality in the obsessive pursuit is gone and the attitudes toward Indians are much more complex. Jones and Maggie are also searching for their lost father-daughter relationship, even though they’re actually in the same place for the first time in decades, and for common emotional ground that would allow them to remake that relationship. There’s an undercurrent of conflict between conventional Christianity (embodied by Maggie) and Indian animism (embodied by Jones and others) that is not entirely successful.
With the confluence of top-flight director and cast, this could have been absolutely terrific, and it isn’t, quite. The weakness is in the story, with its emphasis on the Apache brujo leader of the renegades and on supposed Indian mysticism. That current is a little freaky and doesn’t mesh entirely with the more realistic western elements of the film. But it’s still an excellent western. Ron Howard was a first-time director of westerns with this and probably won’t remember it as one of his three or four best movies, but it’s enjoyable. It’s rated R, largely for its violence and for the nastiness of the renegades.