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Missing, The (2003) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 26 November 2003
There's so much that's outstanding about "The Missing" that the weaknesses somewhat fade into the background, but most will be aware that at 135 minutes, the movie is just too damned long. Still and all, for those with a fondness for Westerns, it's a great year when two good ones are released, this and "Open Range."

Furthermore, it's a serious, even grim movie; its dourness is relieved at times with salty dialog, both spoken and, when in Spanish or Chiricahua, subtitled. Tommy Lee Jones gives an especially strong performance in a period in which he usually has been appearing in less serious movies. Cate Blanchett is completely believable as Maggie Gilkeson, a single frontier wife in 1885 New Mexico. She's a tough survivor, running a small cattle ranch with the help of a couple of cowboys and her two daughters, teenaged Lilly (Evan Rachel Ward) and Dot (Jenna Byrd). She raises cattles and acts as a "healer," an unlicensed doctor, to her neighbors.

She and her cowboy Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) are lovers, but so far she's spurned his marriage proposals. Her husband, Dot's father, died some years ago; she's clearly not ready for marriage again. There are a couple of hints that Lilly is the child of rape, and her mother has tried not altogether successfully not show Lilly any disfavor. Her past remains shadowy, though it sometimes echoes in conversations between Lilly and Dot.

A craggy wanderer who looks like an Indian but who's really a white man who has lived long with the Chiricahua Apaches, arrives at the ranch, met by polite but wary Brake. The newcomer, who we learn is Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), is terse about why he's there, although it seems to have something to do with being bitten by a rattlesnake. Assuming he's come for Maggie's healing gifts, Brake allows him to be down in the barn.

But when he comes into the house, Maggie -- whom he calls "Magdalena" -- is coldly furious to see him, and sends him back to the barn. He is, she tells the surprised Brake, her father who left his family when Maggie was very young. Her mother and brother both died after that, and she blames Jones for her hard life and for abandoning his wife and children. Jones offers no defense, although late in the film, he admits that it's hard to protect your family from yourself. (This is not explained, but it's an intriguing idea.) She finally sends him away.

Lilly is fed up with ranch life and wants to go to a fair in the closest town; she has a certain wanderlust and an attitude toward farm work that leaves her mother convinced she's probably better off in a town. Lilly, Dot, Brake and the other cowhand ride out to tend the cattle, but to Maggie's worry they don't return by nightfall. In the early morning, one of the horses returns home.
She goes on a search and soon finds one cowhand naked and dead, and in a bag over a campfire, Brake's dead and dismembered body. (This is a shocking sight.) Dot shows up, physically unharmed, but full of guilt and fear: a band of marauders has taken Lilly.

In town, Maggie learns that the sheriff cannot spare the men to help her search, but that the Army has sent a platoon north after the marauders. They have been kidnapping young women all over the territory; Lilly is just the latest victim.

So she turns to the one man who might be able to track the marauders, and whom she feels damned well OUGHT to join the search: Jones. Spunky, tough Dot refuses to be left behind, so with a couple of pack animals, they set out in pursuit.

The story cuts between Maggie, Jones and Dot and the band of marauders, led by scarred psychopath Chidin (Eric Schweig). Dirty, dressed in both Indian clothes and Army castoffs and bedecked with stolen photos of his kidnap victims, he's a fearsome sight and runs his band of outlaws with an iron hand. They have seven captives, a number that worries Chidin, and he occasionally tries to raise the number. The captives are relatively well cared for: they're to be sold across the border in Mexico, and the buyers won't like damaged goods.

"The Missing" is familiar in some ways to the John Ford classic "The Searchers," but it has a different focus, and certainly looks different. Colors are desaturated though the desert landscapes are handsomely photographed by Salvatore Totino. Costuming (by Julie Weiss) seems very authentic; the entire film has a very convincing natural look (art direction by Guy Barnes). It's a stark, often searing film with strong characterizations and an aura that blends melancholy and desperation.

Which means it's very surprising to realize the movie is directed by Ron Howard. He's a long way from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" here; hell, he's a long way from "Apollo 13" or "A Beautiful Mind," for that matter. It's the most mature film from Howard so far; all too often, he makes concessions to the audience, trying to create, rather than earn, emotional connections. He was originally scheduled to direct "The Alamo," but withdrew from that project and immediately latched onto this one.

The tough, unflinching script is by Ken Kaufman from the novel "The Last Ride" by Tom Eidson (one of his trilogy on frontier women). For the most part, the movie is lean and realistic rather than cynical. Arriving at a home with a couple of dead bodies and the mother and her daughter taken by the marauders, Maggie, Dot and Jones encounter a band of Army troopers, led by Lieutenant Ducharme (Val Kilmer). The soldiers immediately assume the Indian-looking Jones is the culprit, but Maggie straightens them out. Then the soldiers and their scouts loot the home while the lieutenant watches.

The most serious defect in "The Missing" is the overlength, mostly due to Howard using a bit more material than was necessary. Partway through, for example, Chidin uses Indian sorcery to sicken Maggie at a great distance. This is the only instance of magic in the film, and the story did not really need it. Too much time is spent with a photographer, the semi-hostage of the marauders. The story is lean; the movie should have been, too.

Tommy Lee Jones is at his best here. He has grown more and more craggy as the years pass, and his cynical eyes now have a sad, weary look, perfect for the character. Jones -- the character -- is an aging man who's trying to make amends to the daughter he barely remembers, but has wronged nonetheless. (He also has a different, wryly amusing, motive for looking Maggie up.) He's had Indian wives and children, all dead now; the Indians he lived with called him Cha-bu-da-its-iidan, which was not a compliment. He loved his life with the Indians, but was never one of them. He's not looking for redemption so much as regeneration, but neither path is clear or even necessarily open to him.

Cate Blanchett is one of those actors who never seems to make a wrong move. It's unusual to cast an Australian as a New Mexico mother in the 19th century, but her severe features and expert control of her body, which seems angular here, make the character completely credible. We believe her when she's shyly heading for bed with Blake, and when she's shooting her enemies dead. Maggie is anything but a stereotype; she's the kind of woman we know must have been out there on the frontier in the days of the wild west, but whom we rarely more than glimpse.

The other actors are also fine. Resilient Dot is first delighted when Jones arrive, thinking she might be part Indian, and she tends to admire and imitate him. Again, this is the kind of character we know had to populate the Old West, but whom we rarely see: a ten-year-old kid who rides like a cowboy, knows how to shoot a rifle and is comfortable out on the range, but who's still a child at heart.

An interesting development occurs with Lilly's character. Even her own mother has given up on trying to turn her headstrong daughter into a farm woman, but as a captive, Lilly proves to be as strong a survivor as her mother. She tries to turn the tables on her captors, appoints herself the protector of a mother and baby, and in general is as tough as spring steel.

It's too bad a little more discipline wasn't paid to the pacing and length of "The Missing." It had the potential for being a minor Western classic, but instead is "merely" a very good movie. And I for one am delighted to see the return of flaming arrows.

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