The Missing: Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett excels in this thrilling Western from Ron Howard

The Missing (2003) is a superb Western directed by Ron Howard, and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchet in lead roles. The film, adapted from Thomas Eidson‘s novel The Last Ride, plays more like an updated version of John Ford’s classic 1956 Western, “The Searchers”

John Ford’s 1956 Western classic “The Searchers” may or may not be the greatest Western ever made, but it’s certainly one of the most influential movies of all times- inspiring movies as different as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Taxi Driver” and “Star Wars.” Of course, its biggest influence has been on future Westerns- Very rarely has there been a Western in the postmodern period that has not referenced that iconic Western. Ron Howard’s 2003 Western, “The Missing,” is no exception. The film aims to give both a feminist and a mystical twist to the theme of “The Searchers”- which was about White settlers chasing down a band of renegade Indians who had stolen white women in a post-civil war American West. In place of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley going after Harry Brandon’s Comanche chief, “Scar“- who had kidnapped Ethan’s niece (and half-breed, Martin’s adopted sister), here we have Tommy Lee Jones (playing a racially ambiguous character, I couldn’t make out whether he’s a full-blooded white man living with the Natives or he’s a half-breed trying to co-inhabit with both the races) and his estranged daughter played by Cate Blanchett, a frontier-woman in Northern New Mexico, chasing a ferocious Apache ‘Brujo’ (witch doctor) Pesh-Chidin (played by Eric Schweig ) who has kidnapped Blanchett’s daughter. Ron Howard, who was a very popular actor before he turned director, had starred in some memorable Westerns in his youth, most prominent one being John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist(1976). Naturally, he loved Westerns and had been planning on making one since he turned director in the 1980s. The only time he came close was when he made the ill-fated Tom Cruise- Nicole Kidman starrer “Far and Away” in 1992, set against the ‘Land run of 1893.’ I’m not a big fan of Howard’s direction; i think he perfectly fits into the mold of a Studio journeyman director, and that too an average one. There’s nothing great or outstanding about his filmmaking skills or the films that he has made. But there are a couple of instances when he managed to surprise me: the first was with his 1996 remake of “Ransom” starring Mel Gibson- I thought that was a terrific update of a tense, suspenseful Film-Noir; the second of course is with “The Missing.” I feel that this is certainly the best film he has ever made. His filmmaking is really powerful and gripping, and he manages to create a thrilling, suspenseful, traditional Western with strong modern elements. And surprisingly, this is one of his least talked about films. When people talk about Howard, they may talk about the Oscar nominated, “Apollo 13” or the Oscar Winning “A Beautiful Mind” (an average movie in my opinion), maybe even “Splash” or “Cocoon”, but never this. Some films definitely have a strange destiny. Also, the fact “The Missing” was a box office flop may have something to do with why the film faded so quickly from critics and audiences’ memory.

The film unfolds something like this: The year is 1885 in New Mexico;  Magdalena “Maggie” Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is a lonely rancher, and an unqualified doctor and pharmacist with a strong Christian faith, living alone with her two daughters, the teenager Lily Gilkeson (Evan Rachel Wood) and the ten years old girl Dot Gilkeson (Jenna Boyd). Though she does not have a husband, her ranch assistant, Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) does double duty as her lover- something she’s very discreet about. She also has a an old Mexican, Emiliano (Sergio Calderón) in her employment. Though their life on the ranch is tough, it seems peaceful and satisfying enough for them to go on happily living there, even though Lily, now a young women, has started to rebel and insists on going east to live in the city. Maggie’s idyll is broken when her estranged father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who had abandoned her when she was a child to go live with the Natives, returns to the ranch to reconcile with Maggie. But Maggie is in no mood to forgive her father whose desertion forced her mother into hard labor and early death. Jones, an eccentric with a mystical bent, proves to be too much of a crazy person to be hanging around the ranch, and with Maggie not thawing an inch, Jones’ behavior around the ranch becomes more and more aggressive, to the extend that Jones is ordered to leave at gunpoint by Baldwin and Emiliano. Unable to reconnect with his daughter and his wandering life leaving him unfit for domestic life, Jones departs. The major turning point in the story takes place when everyone on the ranch, except Maggie, leaves for the nearest town. The group comes under attack from a band of renegade Apaches lead by their ruthless leader Pesh-Chidin, who is ritualistically murdering white settlers. Lily is kidnapped, along with several other local women, to be sold into sexual slavery in Mexico, while Brake and Emiliano are brutally killed. Dot is the lone survivor of the massacre. Having failed to get help from anywhere- the town sheriff is busy with a fair, while the cavalry is running in the wrong direction looking for the Reservation-jumping Apaches, Maggie is forced to seek help from her father to track the captives. Thus, Father, daughter and granddaughter sets forth on a journey that will take them from the snowy North to the deserts and mountains of Southern New Mexico.

And as in all great ‘Trail’ Westerns, this external journey also becomes a metaphor for the internal journey of the lead characters- as Jones, Maggie and Dot pursues Pesh-Chidin and his renegades across New Mexico, father and daughter starts getting closer and closer. And as they survive the harsh weather and the treacherous terrain of the frontier, each starts to understand the other a little better. We slowly get to know – along with the characters in the film- as to why Jones felt inclined to abandon his family?; why Maggie is without a husband and the reason why she’s naturally suspicious of all men. On the way, the also pick up a father-son duo of Chiricahua warriors, Kayitah and Honesco, who are also chasing Pesh-Chidin, because in Pesh-Chidin’s group of captives is a Chiricahua woman who’s betrothed to Honesco. Maggie uses her skills as a healer to treat Honesco’s injuries, and later, when Maggie comes down with a severe bout of delirious fever, believed to be the result of Pesh-Chidin’s witchcraft, Kayitah and Jones treats her with the shamanic skills that the latter has acquired during his stay with the natives. Thus, the journey becomes also about members of two different faiths and different civilizations gaining a better understanding of each other. It is finally with the combined efforts of the two families- one white, one Native American- that they are able to free the women, with Kayitah loosing his life in the process. But even after freeing the women, they are not safe yet, as the superhuman Pesh-Chidin gathers his men and give chase. Maggie and company are forced to seek refuge in the mountains to pass the night. Soon Pesh-Chidin and his men also reach the spot and mount a surprise attack in the darkness. Jones, Maggie and their group successfully fights off the Apaches: during the battle, Pesh-Chidin comes very close to killing Maggie with a shotgun, but Jones sacrifices himself to save his daughter, thus proving his love for her. Howard ends the film with the same words with which John Ford ended “The Searchers”: “Let’s go home“; there it was John Wayne speaking those words to Natalie Wood, here it’s Blanchett’s Maggie speaking to her daughters and the other kidnapped girls.

Cate Blanchett gives a terrific performance in the role of Maggie- which is a path breaking one for a Western. Because from “Stagecoach” to “Open Range,” classic western narratives place hard-charging men opposite long-suffering women. This film features a fiercely independent and resourceful adult, frontier woman opposite an old eccentric drunk  who has abandoned his family. Blanchett’s Maggie matches up to any traditional Western hero in riding, shooting and stoicism. She’s the engine that drives the film, and i think the title, “The Missing” stands as much for her abducted daughter, as much as for the things that we find missing in her life, starting with her absent father who returns in body- but not in spirit- at the beginning of the film. The ‘absent father’ theme is stretched to include the unseen fathers of Maggie’s daughters- like her, both Lily and Dot also grew up without a father around them, and It’s also hinted that Lily is a product of ‘rape,’ and hence Maggie’s intense distrust of men and the animosity towards her father who was not there to protect her. And as we would see, she would loose even her boyfriend cum ranch hand within the first half hour of the film. The only man she’s left with is her unreliable and unhinged father with whom she finds neither an emotional or spiritual connection. So, even as she’s hunting the Apaches to regain her missing daughter, she’s also working towards reconnecting the missing link with her father. Thus, at all times in the film’s narrative, there are two stories running in parallel: one dealing with chasing and fighting the renegade Apache , which generates ample suspense, action, and thrills, and the second dealing with the emotional drama between Maggie and Jones that provides a strong dramatic core to the thrilling adventure yarn that’s unfolding.

Naturally, this makes for a very dynamic, character-driven drama that keeps us engrossed at all times, despite some flaws in the film’s screenplay- I can’t believe that Maggie would take her ten year old daughter along on such a dangerous mission, it’s obvious it’s done to make the film more dramatic, and it works. And the characterization is also interesting, not that they’re fully three dimensional, but they move beyond the Western archetypes. The hero is not squeaky clean- Jones’ character is selfish and unlikeable; he’s not looking for redemption, and turns up at his daughter’s ranch as the result of being bitten by a rattlesnake and as part of his ‘cure’, suggested by a medicine man. The characters have flaws and they seem vulnerable when placed in dangerous situations. This is a big deviation from the regular John Wayne\Clint Eastwood Western, where, however entertaining those movies are, we are absolutely sure that the hero will surmount the odds and emerge victorious at the end. But in the case of “The Missing,” we are not sure who will survive at the end. Heroic acts seems to end in tragic death rather than happily ever after. We also see characters- especially Maggie’s two daughters- making mistakes which jeopardizes the mission: Dot’s over anxiousness to spot her sister among the captives at a crucial point in the mission finds the hunters becoming the hunted, while Lily’s delirious mental state and distrust of natives leads to Kayitah’s death. Howard, who was never a subtle filmmaker, uses these elements to the maximum to make the film an edge-of-the-seat affair. Additionally, the film also mixes some horror\ supernatural elements into its Western template, further accentuating the “Thriller” aspect of the film. Though the film never slips outright into ‘Horror’ territory, Howard definitely intended this to be an eerie Western- the film does have those classic Western shots of Wide-open, big-sky vistas in abundance, but Howard also takes special care in building up the film’s hazy, nocturnal atmosphere. But where he goes really overboard is in the creation of the film’s villain: the Apache “Brujo”, Pesh-Chidin is quite possibly the creepiest, ugliest and the most terrifying villain to be featured in a Western. A truly demonic presence. Sometimes you find it difficult even to look at him- the makeup job is too extreme, transforming Schweig, who played the noble Mohican in “The last of the Mohicans,” into this dreadful Apache.

And as we go along on this journey with the film’s lead characters, we also get a vivid overview of the South Western landscape in the late Nineteenth Century, when a very complex relationship existed between Natives and white men. White settlers coming under attack from reservation-jumping Natives was a recurring event, and so was the instances of abducted young white women being forced to become sex slaves; there are also instances of natives and white men joining up to raid the frontier homesteads; the cavalry is made up of soldiers who are more interested in looting the homesteads they come across rather than chasing renegade natives. There is always an impending threat of the natives and mixed blood soldiers drafted into the American cavalry turning rogue. The cavalry, being preoccupied with forcefully relocating the natives to reservations, have no time to rescue kidnapped White women. The film also provides a balanced view of Native Americans during that period. We get both extremes of Native American civilization- the violent and savage side represented by the “Brujo” and the more gentle side represented by Kayitah and others. We also see the Natives being forcefully driven from their homelands to the “smelly swamps” of Florida. The balanced approach also goes for the representation of the White settlers. Val Kilmer pops up in a cameo as a haggard cavalry captain who is fully aware of the injustices meted out to the natives, who’s fed up with the inept, racist and looting bunch of soldiers he’s forced to command, but still goes along with the authorities in their unfair treatment of the natives.

In Tommy Lee Jones’ character, we have someone who reconciles between these two warring civilizations. Jones, who was a huge Western fan and would go on to direct a few Westerns himself, is superb as the selfish, yet ultimately self-sacrificing heroic father. He adds color, humor and vitality to the proceedings with his eccentric performance. In Ford’s “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was a man with a mysterious past, who seems to know a lot about the Natives, but who’s motivated by blind racism to pursue and kill them. Jones’ character here seems to be both an extension and a revisionist take on that character. Like Ethan, he knows a lot about the natives, but that’s because he has lived with them for a long time- he dresses up like them, and is even mistaken for a real Native. His pursuit of the Apaches maybe driven by either selfish or altruistic reasons, but in any case it’s completely devoid of racial hatred. This is a modern twist given to the theme of “The Searchers,” even though the film is officially adapted from Thomas Eidson’s novel, The Last Ride.

The year 2003 saw a mini resurgence of Westerns- there were four big Westerns released this year : apart from “The Missing,” there was Kevin Costner’s brilliant “Open Range,” the not so great remake of “The Alamo,” and Anthony Minghella’s civil war themed “Cold Mountain.” I think It was the last time that so many big-budgeted Westerns was released in a calendar year; and apart from the modest success of “Open Range,” the rest of them were all box office disappointments- though “Cold Mountain” did receive some Oscar attention, with Rene Zellweger winning a best supporting actress Oscar. “The Missing” certainly deserved some nominations (at least)- for Blanchett, Jones and Schweig’s performances as well as for Salvatore Totino’s superb cinematography. Perhaps the film’s commercial failure hurt their chances. But it does not diminish the film’s merits. The film is truly one of the last of the great traditional Westerns- with modern elements mixed in the right proportion.


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