The Missing
review by Cynthia Fuchs 28 November 2003

Taking pictures

The 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?"

Maggie's 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.

Maggie 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.

Salvatore 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 Chiricahua Apaches.

How 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.

This 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 (Henry Brand).

Even 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.

While 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.

That 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 enemies.

Certainly, 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 definition.

Directed by:
Ron Howard

Cate Blanchett
Tommy Lee Jones
Jenna Boyd
Evan Rachel Wood
Eric Schweig
Aaron Eckhart
Val Kilmer
Clint Howard

Written by:
Ken Kaufman

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.