A genre returns with 'The Missing'

BY
BY RYAN LEWIS
Daily Film Editor
Published December 1, 2003

The great Hollywood Western is dead. Sweeping historical
landscape epics a la John Ford and Howard Hughes cannot satisfy
audiences anymore. Instead, the genre has undergone drastic changes
and failed updates courtesy of MTV generation directors that seek
to “hippify” the most influential of all film types in
cinematic history. However, recent and upcoming turns from lasting
personalities like Kevin Costner, Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese
should prove the antithesis to the Studio’s pestering and
bring back the classic Western stylistics.

Janna Hutz
Porky Pig ... little red fucker with a moustache. (Courtesy of Revolution)

That being said, director Ron Howard’s “The
Missing” effectively tweaks characteristics of old and hands
in a surprisingly dark yet inspiring genre pic. Much akin to
Ford’s “The Searchers,” “The Missing”
deals with the search for a kidnapped daughter across the terrain
of the 19th-ccentury American West. Unlike Ford’s classic
— in fact different than almost any other Western —
Howard’s film features a female heroine and two tremendously
strong supporting female characters.

Cate Blanchett (“The Lord of the Rings”) plays
Maggie Gilkeson, a resilient medicine woman living on the New
Mexico range with her two daughters and the support of
neighbor/lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart, “Any Given
Sunday”). One day, Maggie’s father (Tommy Lee Jones)
returns home after having left his family to live with various
Indian tribes.

Jones’ character, Samuel Jones, quite closely resembles
the prototypical Western hero. Coming in out of the wilderness to a
society that rejects him, he aids the good white people in their
plight against evil. Howard’s direction and Ken
Kaufman’s adaptation of Thomas Eidson’s novel, however,
utilize simple modifications of the classic hero to transform Jones
into a much more complex character. Instead of simply knowing the
ways of the “Wild West” and Indians, he rejected his
own family and culture for the life of a tribesman. He fights not
for the love or safety of his family, but for his own health. His
is a supremely flawed character; one who is actually weaker than
his foe.

After Maggie rejects him, her eldest daughter (Evan Rachel Wood,
“Thirteen”) is kidnapped by a crew of Indian scout Army
deserters led by a shaman called a brujo (Eric Schweig,
“Skins”). With the help of her father and youngest
daughter, Maggie embarks on a journey to rescue her daughter before
they reach Mexico.

Though “The Missing” is at times slow and tedious,
it harkens back to the classics and provides some of the finest
performances from its leads. Blanchett’s stalwart heroine is
the inspiration that Dr. Quinn never was, and Jones turns in an
award-worthy display of talent. Schweig as the antagonist gives
life to one of the most evil and ugly villains of the genre.
Another twist by the filmmakers transforms the typical face-to-face
duel into a brilliant battle between the brujo and Jones on a
mystical plain for the survival of Maggie. These little but notable
quirks carry the power of “The Missing,” which will
hopefully inspire the return of the classical Western genre.

Rating: 4 stars.