“The Missing” is a disappointment, relentlessly politically correct and even more relentlessly bleak and brutal.
Cate Blanchett plays Maggie, one of those indomitable frontier women who can yank an infected tooth, chop the firewood, handle a pouting teenager, and still find time for a romantic interlude with a handsome cowboy. She is known as a healer, and never turns anyone away, even her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones in full crag), who deserted her family when she was a child and has been living with the Indians.
She will treat him, but she will not forgive him. But then, when an Indian shaman and his henchmen (some Indian, some white) murder Maggie’s lover and kidnap her daughter to sell her into prostitution, Maggie has to ask her father to help her track them so she can bring her daughter home.
In some ways, this is a very traditional set-up, with the quintessential movie plot — two people who do not get along forced to take a physical and psychological journey together in pursuit of a goal, here in one of the most enduring of movie settings, the old West, 1885 New Mexico. We see the first glimpses of modernity with the appearance of the telegraph, gramophone, and camera, in contrast to the last glimpses of the old, as ancient curses require ancient cures. And the movie reflects its own modernity and underscores its themes of duality, making sure that there are Indians, whites, and Mexicans as both good and bad guys.
Director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) sustains the bleak and ominous atmosphere with images like a riderless horse returning home, a coyote on the dining room table, rattlesnakes hanging from trees in the midst of a terrible stillness, and with the the pale vistas of the terrain itself, bleached out, craggy, and unyielding.
And the story has some resonance, with themes that circle back. The shaman tells Maggie’s father that he has two dogs inside him, a good one and a bad one. Which one will win? He answers, “The one I feed the most.” Maggie and her father exchange necklaces — Indian beads and a silver crucifix — for protection, and Maggie and her father use the healing methods of their cultures on each other. One parent left a child and another cannot leave a child. Another parent who loses a child cannot continue.
Lilly, the about-to-be-kidnapped daughter, angry because her mother will not let her go to town to see the newfangled invention that records people’s voices, says she was born into the wrong family. She is not the only one who thinks that. Maggie is still bitter because her father left. And her father, having lived more with Indians than with white people, is very aware that he is not a part of either. It is an Indian who sent him back to the world he left. He only sought Maggie out because the medicine man said he had to care for his family if he wanted to survive a rattlesnake bite. He knew which “family” that had to be. As Maggie stands near the telegraph while the operater sends the message about Lilly to the cavalry, she sees the girls experimenting with the gramophone that Lilly had asked to see.
This movie has two dogs inside it, a good one and a bad one, and neither one wins. It has strengths, including the willingness to attempt some thematic complexity, reliably solid performances by Blanchett and Jones (with good but brief appearances by Val Kilmer and Aaron Eckhart) and the outstanding Jenna Boyd. But it does not address its themes with enough depth to justify its darkness, and thus does not succeed.
Parents should know that this is an extremely violent movie, with frequent and exceptionally graphic brutal images and many injuries and deaths, including death of a child. A character commits suicide. There are sexual references and non-explicit sexual situations. The plot revolves around a plan to sell the girls into prostitution. Characters drink alcohol and use some strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the dualities it emphasizes, including the white/Indian cultures. They should also talk about how the characters determine what their responsibilities are. Could Maggie have left with only two girls? Should the cavalry or the sheriff have abandoned their other duties to find Lilly?
Families who enjoy this movie should see the classic The Searchers, one of the most influential movies ever made. They may also enjoy Silverado and Shane.