Cate Blanchett (left) as frontierswoman Maggie Gilkeson and Tommy Lee Jones as her errant father in The Missing. (courtesy photo)

Ron Howard's film is a foray into the lawless wilderness of the old West

The opening scene of The Missing — an epic tale of familial redemption and reconciliation set in the waning days of the old West — finds Maggie Gilkeson in a philosophical position in a frontier toilet, sans Charmin and privacy. It is our first clue that, despite a mostly predictable plot, this is neither a typical Western nor your standard Tommy Lee Jones vehicle (though he does get to engage in some acrobatics that seem at violent odds with his dissolute posture).

The hardscrabble ranching life of Cate Blanchett's character, Maggie, is not romanticized by exaggeration or rose-colored glasses, and thanks to the Australian's impeccable acting chops, she is thoroughly believable as a maverick frontierswoman raising two daughters with the help of an erstwhile boyfriend. When Maggie refuses supper to a savage stranger (Jones) who saunters into the stakehold one evening, the skein of family conflict begins to unfold. The man is her long-gone father, whose years of living a nomadic life among the Chiricahua and Apache have honed the tracking skills that Maggie coincidentally needs to pursue her eldest daughter's kidnappers.

Here is where the plot predictability ends. The Missing refuses to make apologies for its characters' flaws or give easy explanations for the near state-of-nature in late 1800s New Mexico, where renegade natives run with lawless whites, Mexicans are caught in between, and the law acts with random brutality and ineffectiveness. Basic, untranslated Spanish is sprinkled in where it makes sense, and Native Americans are shown speaking their own beautiful languages (subtitled), conferring equal stature with the white characters.

The Missing

Dir. Ron Howard; writ. Ken Kaufman, based on novel by Thomas Eidson; feat. Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Aaron Eckhart, Val Kilmer (R)
The film's antagonist, a Native American brujo — played with menacing charisma by Eric Schweig, who is Inuit and German — argues that all of this trouble can be laid at the white man's feet, but the film doesn't excuse his individual actions. And it doesn't absolve Maggie's father either, who is named Shit for Luck by his native friends because he has abandoned a family, at the same time allowing him to poetically explain his wanderlust.

The film plays with the excruciatingly tragic and complicated legacy of the West and the destruction of Native American culture. Jones and Val Kilmer, both of Native American heritage, play white men who are two very different types of exploiters of the Indians around them. The characters often suffer under multiple prejudices and mutual misunderstanding. Blanchett's Maggie is a Christian and a modern healer, while Schweig's Pesh-Chidin is a witch doctor. We know whose medicine proves stronger in the end, but the two struggle on equal terms for a while.

For quite a while, actually: The film has one climactic battle scene too many, making the final nighttime melee atop a craggy outpost a little anticlimactic. A treat, though, are the sly echoes of classic Westerns, from the fatal tumble over a precipice to the rattlesnakes who hint at a more authentic true grit in the pairing of Blanchett and Jones. The Missing deserves praise for adding to the still small collection of films of an unvarnished American West, and for giving us a story that is — as a well-known writer once described a successful ending — both surprising and inevitable. •

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