Now more than a century removed from it, two opposite images of the American Old West remain in our culture. One is of a harsh, unforgiving era of lawlessness and desperation, of sickness, disease and random Indian attacks. The other is the “Little House on the Prairie” version, where family is all-important and life is simple, full of work, but rewarding.
“The Missing,” Ron Howard’s proficient new film based on the Thomas Eidson novel “The Last Ride,” combines both views into something I think must be close to how life actually was: desolate and difficult, but made more bearable through a devotion to one’s kin.
Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) embodies the harsher elements of it, haggard and time-worn (an especial feat given that it’s the radiant Cate Blanchett we’re talking about) as the single mother of two girls, owner of a ranch, and the only doctor in this part of New Mexico. Traditional family values have escaped her: We have only speculation as to the father of her oldest daughter, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), and Maggie now sleeps with Brake (Aaron Eckhart), a ranch hand who cannot convince her to marry him. Her husband, father of younger Dot (Jenna Boyd), has passed away. Her own father, she pretends is dead.
Yet he is not. After walking out on the family years ago, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) pursued an Indian lifestyle but has now come to regret his former misdeeds. He visits the homestead in need of medical care and reconciliation, but Maggie refuses to give him any of the latter. Indeed, she will not even share dinner or her home with him, consigning him to a night in the barn instead. Brake is amazed she could treat a relative so roughly.
Young Lily, meanwhile, wishes to experience the greener pastures that surely exist beyond the ranch. Like so many movie teens before her, and the heroines of countless musicals, she wants more than this provincial life. When Maggie tells her there’s too much work to do to let her go to the fair that’s coming through town, Lily dresses for it anyway, doing her ranch chores in her best dress and bonnet.
As is often the case with such disaffected, cynical or unhappy movie teens, she is kidnapped. (Seldom do you see well-adjusted children being abducted in films; it’s always the ones who just days earlier were wishing they could get away.) The culprit is an evil Indian who rounds up girls in the territory and sells them as brides across the Mexican border. The sheriff is no help — he’s played by Clint Howard, for heaven’s sake — and the nearest army regiment (headed by Val Kilmer) has different marching orders, leaving Maggie, her estranged father and her terrified young daughter to find and rescue Lily.
This is not Tommy Lee Jones’ first time playing a guy in search of a fugitive, of course; by my count, it’s his fourth. This time he’s softened his edges, included some repentance, and added Native American mysticism to his repertoire. That sort of spiritualism isn’t exactly my cup of tea — I think it’s a cop-out to use prayer or incantations in a movie to solve plot problems, unless the movie is actually ABOUT the power of faith — but it gives the movie an ethereal feel, matching the bleak landscapes and dirty cinematography.
Cate Blanchett is no less sturdy than you’d expect her to be, as fully realized as a hardy frontier woman as she is in her other film roles. She frets for her daughter, struggles to forgive her father, and keeps her shotgun loaded, all with equal aplomb.
Ron Howard’s direction is characteristically capable and just as characteristically nondescript. (Show five Ron Howard films to someone unfamiliar with him and I bet no one would guess they were by the same director. His trademark is that he has no trademark.) Some scenes are truly harrowing, others are exciting, others are poignant, but none so distinctive in its mood that its impact will last beyond whatever film you see after this one.
Nonetheless, in a year that has already seen one fine Western (“Open Range”), it’s good, even a little comforting, to see another one, especially one that recalls John Ford’s great “The Searchers” (1956). Those old values of family, loyalty and bravery don’t get trotted out much anymore without irony attached to them. “The Missing” does them justice, and provides stimulating movie fare along the way.
B (2 hrs., 15 min.; )