An early trailer conjured this film as a horror story in the vein of The Others (2001) – fragmented glimpses of madness and magic mostly obscured by darkness. I wondered: had director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) gone avant-garde?
However, as often occurs in the annals of movie promotion, that trailer was a strategic sleight of hand, presumably designed to cover up the film's true nature. The Missing (not to be confused with the Taiwanese or Australian films of that title) is a Western, and proud to be one.
Where Kevin Costner's contemporaneous Open Range (2003) basks in the leisurely, guys-hanging-out ambience of the classic Westerns, The Missing is indebted to the grimy neurotic edge of the genre, such as Anthony Mann's violent films starring James Stewart in the '50s.
Specifically, Howard pays homage to two of the most agonised Westerns of all: John Ford's The Searchers (1955) and Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957).
Maggie (Cate Blanchett) is no-nonsense doctor and mother in 1885. She has a lover, Brake (Aaron Eckhart), but can get along without him. The main problem that bugs her is her father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), who long ago abandoned his family – and ended up becoming, to the best of his ability, an American Indian.
In a sudden, dramatic move, Maggie's daughter, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), is abducted by Chidin (Eric Schweig), an Apache shaman who is also a white slave trader. Maggie must turn to Samuel for help. Little Dot (Jenna Boyd), Lily's sister, also demands to be included in this dangerous odyssey.
Pursuit stories such as this always face basic, structural challenges. For the chase to continue, the parties must rarely meet. And when they do meet, there has to be a good reason for the pursuit to start over again, or else the movie would be over within an hour.
Howard is enough of a student of Westerns classic and modern to know that he must dig deeply into elements other than strict plot, such as natural environment, frontier lifestyle and character psychology.
It is here that the film begins to wobble slightly. On the one hand, Howard emulates wandering, atmospheric, allusive Westerns like Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) and Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972). On the other hand, the demands of the contemporary box-office lead him into unequivocal scenes of action that tend to erase the moral and cultural ambiguities the film has earlier set up.
But there is no doubt that this is Howard's finest work in a long time, at last fulfilling the promise he showed at the very start of his directorial career. And he is helped immeasurably by a wonderful cast, in which Blanchett, Jones and Boyd especially shine.
In many respects, The Missing is a companion piece to another recent film, Cold Mountain (2003). In both, tough, pioneer women manage to survive every imaginable horror. Both films are about women's experience of loss. In both, the central men are shadowy, absent, difficult figures. And in both, the beauty of a vast American landscape belies the presence of a savage, chaotic society.
Neither film is likely to endure as a great work fifty years hence but, in the historical context of our current, war-torn moment, both register a salutary pessimism, a sense that all is not well in the American paradise. And for this to be finding expression in blockbusters rather than arthouse fare is a phenomenon worth tracking as it unfolds.
© Adrian Martin March 2004