review by Cynthia
Fuchs 28 November 2003
most effective moments in Ron Howard's The Missing concern
Cate Blanchett's face. As Maggie, a "healer" in 1885 New
Mexico, she contends with any number of daily difficulties, from
single-parenting her daughters -- fractious Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood)
and solid citizen Dot (Jenna Boyd) -- to making time for stalwart
lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart). Not to mention the healing. In her
first scene, she yanks out an old woman's bad tooth: as the patient
wails, Maggie's own face is hard. And, oh yes, she asks, "Can
you pay me for this today?"
toughness is at once enhanced and complicated by Blanchett's
stunning beauty, and she does tends to select roles that frame her
similarly, from Elizabeth (1998) and Charlotte Gray
(2001) to Heaven (2002) and Veronica Guerin (2003).
Here, she's downright bedraggled by film's end, as she spends weeks
on dusty trails in search of Lilly, who is, within minutes of the
film's start, kidnapped by a band of miscreants with plans to sell
her to nasty Mexicans.
asks the sheriff (Clint Howard) to help, and he consults the
military via telegraph, noting the wonders of the newfangled
technology. Gazing outside while he natters, Maggie sees the
fast-approaching future in the form of a voice-recording device,
come to town with a fair. Feeling guilty that she made Lilly work
instead of attending the fair, Maggie watches a girl smile as she
hears herself. The reverse shot of Blanchett's face tells you
everything you need to know, in one perfectly composed moment.
Totino's camera repeatedly seeks out this face, and it never fails
to convey complex emotional mixes. But while Maggie has wisdom and
grit beyond most women in westerns, she's also confined by an
increasingly contrived plot. For one thing, there's her long-absent
father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones, suddenly returned to atone
for abandoning his family twenty years ago to live with the
fortunate: not only can Jones track the kidnappers, he's also
guarded over by a mystic hawk, plays action hero (leaping through
windows and off cliffs, punching and kicking), and has an old Indian
buddy Kayitah (Jay Tavare), who happens to be seeking the same
marauders, who happen to have taken his son's wife to be. The saga
that follows vaguely resembles The Searchers, with
complications laid on top of those already structuring John Ford's
original. Maggie the Indian hater learns to appreciate Jones'
usefully potent magic, especially after she observes the cavalry,
led by the excessively smarmy Lt. Ducharme (Val Kilmer), loot the
home of a butchered white family. When she protests such disrespect,
Ducharme shrugs it off as a symptom of spending too much time on the
road, essentially. But he also makes clear that the worst fallout of
the cavalry's use of Apache scouts amounts to "contagion":
race-mixing, he snorts, is all bad for the white race.
whole scene makes Maggie think some; already worried that her
father's immorality has to do with his "Indian"
affiliations, she's struck by how wrongheaded the white guys in
charge appear. But while The Missing raises this question --
and again, Blanchett's face gives it suitable gravity and complexity
-- it can't seem to stop from reducing the villain to that most
egregious of scary stereotypes: the psychotic Apache brujo (witch). Pesh-Chidin
(Eric Schweig) casts evil spells from across great distances, big
pimps the poor girls he's stolen, and snarls and grimaces so as to
accentuate the horrible scars on his face -- like some bizarre
Halloween maskish reference to The Searchers' Cicatrice
amid his conventional horrors, the brujo's
most disturbing trick is a resonant one, given the film's attention
to technologies of the "future." Pesh-Chidin wears small
framed photos of his victims pinned to his vest; he forces a quaking
white photographer to shoot these images for him, then flaunts them.
Grimly haunting and glittering in the sun, they signify yet another
recording practice, specifically the capture of faces.
this technology grants the pleasure of Blanchett on a wide screen,
for Pesh-Chidin, image-taking is a means to possess bodies if not
souls, to proclaim the supremacy of his will. His power is such that
he lords over an oddly multi-raced band of marauders (which serves
as an example for Lt. Ducharme of the dangerous consequences of
race-mixing -- obviously, he's not fond of Jones either).
Pesh-Chidin's gang includes whites and Indians (these last being
disgruntled former cavalry scouts, mad at their abuse by racist
white soldiers, now making money by way of the dominant capitalist
system that has so abused them.
they are will be selling their "merchandise" south of the
border compounds the film's multiple dilemmas regarding national and
race boundary. Yet the film's focus remains unnecessarily resolute
-- the father-daughter business takes up all its emotional energy.
And so, Maggie and Jones play flipsides of John Wayne's Ethan
without ever representing the invidious aspects of his narrow vision
-- they come together to embody a new and improved
"searcher" times two, who can forgive and be generous, one
not locked in a past framed by fear and violence, a past comprised
of racist legacy. With Kayitah and his son riding along as noble
sidekicks, these better searchers make use of multiple magics, bible
passages as much as native spirit chants, along with some sharp
shooting, in order to rescue the stolen girls and defeat their
Jones' devotion to the "Indian" ways is initially a
problem for his daughter (he's like Costner's character, Dances With
Wolves, going home again). Her budding tolerance looks toward a
melding of cultures that never quite occurs. If only the film might
have managed its many strands in a less reductive form. As it is, The
Missing indicts the general push of modernization, as white
populations move West and South, glances briefly at other futures
offered by technologies (recording and military), and can't quite
grapple with the displacement that is the white settlers' lot, by
Tommy Lee Jones
Evan Rachel Wood
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult