Today, westerns are thought to be as dear to American culture as the opera is to Italians, or the ballet is to Russians. There may be some truth in this, but in the heyday of the western–an era that for all practical purposes spans John Wayne’s career from 1939’s Stagecoach to his 1975 checkout in The Shootist–the movies were generally considered B-grade matinee fare.
The Missing, Ron Howard’s new entree into that genre, is another venture into cinematic incense-burning. Set in New Mexico in 1885, the film concerns a woman who joins forces with her bitterly estranged father to recover her daughter who has been kidnapped by a renegade band of white and Apache criminals, with the intent to sell her into prostitution in Mexico. Accompanied by a remaining daughter, the search party must navigate the perils of a lawless frontier, populated by criminals of all stripes and nationalities, before the climactic showdown with the arch-villain.
Fans of classic movies will recognize in this plot the unmistakable influence of The Searchers, a 1956 John Ford film in which John Wayne plays a drifter and mercenary who spends years hunting for his kidnapped niece, a quest that he pursues with frightening, psychopathic fury. (Wayne’s performance is one of the bravest ever by a superstar–in a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger turns his Terminator into a good guy, it’s hard to imagine a current star taking a similar risk.) Although critics’ surveys usually place The Searchers among the greatest movies of all time, not everyone loves it. Unlike such consensus classics as Casablanca, Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane, The Searchers infuriates many viewers with its ambiguous depiction of racism, miscegenation and the violence of the frontier, not to mention its heavy quotient of bumptious humor. But, for all of its rough edges, I’m among those who think The Searchers is one of the greatest films ever made. Although it might seem unfair to compare The Missing to Ford’s magnus opus, the blatancy of Howard’s homage makes it unavoidable.
But, to first give credit to The Missing on its own terms, the performances of Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones are quite compelling. Blanchett’s Maggie Gilkeson is a rugged frontier woman who lives on a ranch with her two daughters. As befitting generations of social progress, Maggie is self-consciously presented as much more than a butter-churning baby mill. She’s fiercely independent, living on the frontier as a single mom to her daughters Lilly (Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd) and refusing the repeated marriage proposals of the sweet cowboy who helps out around the place. She’s also a frontier physician: The film opens with a graphic scene of Maggie extracting a rotten tooth from an Indian woman. But rather than console or comfort her squalling patient, she demands to know how they’re planning to pay.
With Maggie established as a tough, unsentimental woman, we find out why, when her estranged father Samuel Jones (Jones)–a rawhide-tough drifter with a cloudy past–arrives at her ranch looking to re-establish their relationship, one that he’d severed when he walked out on Maggie and her mother. Jones’ performance as a rogue with a heart of gold isn’t surprising–the role seems tailor-made for him. Still, he keeps the treacle at arm’s length, thus avoiding a descent into Robert Bly-style mawkishness. For her part, Blanchett is fierce and uncompromising. She doesn’t have much charm anywhere in the film; her Maggie understands that the West is too treacherous for sentimentality and her determination to rescue her daughter seems motivated by some sort of violent, atavistic maternal impulse than more conventionally warm and fuzzy histrionics.
Although Blanchett and Jones invest their characters with considerable feeling, what is finally so grating and disappointing about The Missing is its central conflict of good versus evil. While The Missing didn’t invent this Manichean divide, it certainly follows the rules of action movies that were laid down–for lack of a better culprit–by Star Wars a quarter-century ago. In the moral universe of too many movies nowadays, villains must be purely evil, with no redeeming qualities. They do not have sympathetic motives, they have no honor and they are never allowed to be human beings. In The Missing, the head villain might as well be one of the Orcs from Lord of the Rings. Hideously scarred and thoroughly repulsive, he practices black magic with dangling rattlesnakes and keeps photographs of his victims dangling around his neck. But, to cite one way in which The Missing falls far short of its inspiration, the purported villain of The Searchers is a virile renegade Comanche. What’s more, he has a motive that’s not at all dissimilar from John Wayne’s. When Wayne stares his nemesis down, late in The Searchers, he’s not looking at the Evil Other. He’s looking into a mirror.
Although The Missing doesn’t do justice to its primary influence, in the end it is an honorable, if overlong and unmemorable Hollywood movie. However, Ron Howard deserves credit for reviving interest in The Searchers, which I urge hardy and curious souls to rent after seeing The Missing.