The Missing
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The Missing is a Western, although it's filmed as if it belonged to the horror genre. While movies such as Unforgiven and Dancing with Wolves have in part restored some relevancy to the Western, suspicions about the Western nonetheless being box-office poison have lingered. So with The Missing we get a Western that doesn't really look like a Western. Director Ron Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino have focused on paranoia and fear as the guiding principles, so while the movie mostly takes place in wide open places, the movie is nonetheless claustrophobic, at times even evoking The Blair Witch Project in its use of trees and forests to convey a palpable fear of the unknown.

The story focuses on a kidnapping. A teenage girl is abducted by renegade Indians who have fled the reservation with the intention of capturing several women and selling them into slavery in Mexico. Meanwhile, the girl's mother (Cate Blanchett) and grandfather (Tommy Lee Jones) have figured out what has happened, so they're tracking the Indians, waiting for an opportunity when they can free the girl.

This cross-pollination of horror and Western genres works exceptionally well throughout the first two thirds of the movie. During this time, the situation is set up and we witness the horror when the mother discovers her daughter is missing. The movie conveys her absolute frustration as she deals with first a marshal who has more pressing concerns than the fate of a teenage girl. Even better yet, when she encounters a cavalry platoon searching for the Indians, she tells them they're headed in the wrong direction, but they must follow their orders and continue north even though the Indians are heading south. (In a relatively brief role, Val Kilmer plays the cavalry lieutenant.) This episode evokes movies such as Apocalypse Now in its depiction of military incompetence.

During its first two thirds, The Missing is frequently an astonishing film, but the longer it plays the stupider it gets. First we get the idiocy of Jones leading the mother and her younger daughter into a narrow valley during a thunder storm, a move that even a greenhorn cowboy would know is foolhardy (and Jones plays a hunter who has lived his life as an Indian over the past two decades). And then, as Jones and Blanchett remain on the trail of the Indians, the movie reaches a point where Jones must take on the entire group of Indians by himself. Blanchett wields a rifle, but it's really Jones doing his best impersonation of Rambo. At this point, the movie sinks under the weight of the accumulated improbabilities. This is how American movies tend to find resolution -- with the hero killing all the bad guys. This ending is especially disappointing because the movie flirts with an alternative ending much sooner; however, this alternative ending would not have restored the family. So rather than risk alienating those audience members who deplore unhappy endings (you can practically hear the howls of protest from the penny counters), the movie lumbers forward into predictability.

You'll still find much to appreciate in The Missing, especially Cate Blanchett's performance as the harried mother who is forced to rely upon her father for help. When she was a child, he had abandoned her family in favor of living with Indians. So the movie takes the gutsy move of giving us a heroine who has a strong revulsion for Indians. Whereas many movies set in the past give their characters modern perceptions in order to establish political correctness, The Missing goes the other direction by giving Blanchett some less-than-noble traits. In addition, the movie gives us a daunting portrayal of military impotence. No one can help Blanchett. But unfortunately the filmmakers just toy with this concept. Without the resolve to follow through, the filmmakers allow the biting criticism of military impotence to dissolve into little more than a plot contrivance, created mainly so that Blanchett and Jones must go on alone and therefore work together --resolving their differences in the process.

Buried in The Missing is a potentially great Western, but the movie opts for a conventional shoot-'em-up ending. In the process, the movie's potential gets caught in the cross-fire.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Columbia Pictures (
Movie Web site: The Missing



Photo credits: © 2003 Revolution Studios Distribution
Company, LCC.