Ron Howard’s ambitious The Missing tries a lot and succeeds a little
Ron Howard’s The Missing has quite a lot going for it but not so much as that to recommend it.
It’s a rugged, action filled western with dueling inclinations toward the horror film and a revisionist New Age take on Native American mysticism. It addresses the convoluted racism of the 19th-century Southwest as well as a frontier brand of feminism and tends to walk both sides of the street with each. Lurid melodrama and cruel violence repeatedly get the upper hand.
Adapted from a novel by Tom Eidson, the story postures toward an enlightened view of Native Americans and whites in the Old West, but its over-determined plot reeks of retrograde fantasies from the dark ages of Victorian-style racism. While the central thread of the action involves the attempt to rescue a white girl kidnapped by renegade Indians before she can be sold into slavery in Mexico, the central drama develops between an errant father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has become a “white Indian,” and his estranged and embittered daughter (Cate Blanchett), a frontier physician and mother of the girl who has been kidnapped.
Jones delivers a characteristically brusque and rueful performance as the wayward father seeking redemption by tracking his granddaughter’s kidnappers. The story of the aging frontiersman’s quest makes for a satisfying if unexceptional adventure tale. But the daughter’s part in all this is another matter.
Blanchett succeeds in maintaining the dignity of her diva persona, but she has no real chance to make anything credible out of an absurdly overloaded characterization. Physician, Indian-hating Christian, pre-modern single mother, anachronistically liberated woman, gunfighter wearing stylishly tailored Clint Eastwood drag, repressed Electra figure, etc.—it would take a long-running mini-series and truckloads of acting and writing ingenuity to make something compelling and coherent out of that màlange.
The main villain in the story is a sadistic brujo (Eric Schweig), a psychopathic renegade whose witchcraft the Jones character combats successfully in one of the film’s dramatic tributes to Native American “medicine.” Cross-cultural by-play is one of the story’s strong points, but too much of The Missing still rides on demonization of the Other, and for all of its revisionist sympathies, it still gravitates toward much-discredited fantasies of the Vanishing American.