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The Missing

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
The Missing
from Film Forum, 12/04/03

Director Ron Howard moves from his Oscar-winning drama A Beautiful Mind to a Western in the tradition of John Ford. Like Ford's classic John Wayne film The Searchers, The Missing boasts breathtaking cinematography as its desperate heroes—a terror-stricken mother, her willful young daughter, and a troubled old man—pursue a band of Apache villains who have kidnapped a teenage girl.

Cate Blanchett, who had one leading role already this year (Veronica Guerin) and who reprises her role as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King this month, plays Magdalena "Maggie" Gilkenson here. Maggie is known in 1880's New Mexico as a healer and a rancher, raising young Lily (Evan Rachel Wood of Thirteen) and Dot (Jenna Boyd), and harboring private wounds about her past. When a mysterious silver-haired man named Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up on Maggie's ranch, he forces Maggie to reconsider and wrestle with her past. Soon after she has denied him permission to stay there, she finds herself in need of his help. A man is murdered, and Lily is taken captive. Samuel knows how to track Apaches, and since the U.S. military proves of little use to them, Maggie finds herself with no choice but to bring him along. Thus, they head out on a seemingly doomed rescue mission.

Blanchett immerses herself in the role, as she always does, proving again why she is the most formidable actress to reach the screen since Meryl Streep. She plays Maggie perfectly, from her accent to her resilience and physical fragility. Jones delivers one of his most understated and nuanced performances as well, and the young actresses are convincing as their characters suffer violence and horror.

Unfortunately, despite gorgeous scenery and an uncharacteristically subtle soundtrack from James Horner, the film has a "been-there, done-that" quality that keeps it from becoming an original or compelling adventure. Howard and company present the violence with uncompromising intensity, but they play it safe when the story strays into controversial territory. While the Native Americans who help Maggie employ a good deal of voodoo and traditional "medicine," Maggie persists in her prayers and dependence on God. Howard and his screenwriter Ken Kaufman, adapting Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, shy away from the conflict between the two faiths, as if too concerned that they might offend somebody. Thus, the overall implication is that faith of any kind, so long as it is offered with sincerity, will get results.

More damaging to the film is its lack of interesting or original ideas. The heroes do what they must to force a confrontation with the villains, and it all boils down to a traditional shoot-out, in which might determines the outcome, not faith or ingenuity. The subplot concerning Lily's trials among the Apaches is similarly mundane. We are led to despise the villain because he is the only one in the film with an unpleasant face, and because he stands out from the otherwise airbrushed natives as a rare and barbaric exception.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Howard approaches this material from a number of different angles which gives the movie added depth. The character drama which plays out is emotionally rich and rewarding." He also notes the film's "mysticism … which Howard wisely leaves open to interpretation."

"Despite decent writing, solid acting, and fine production values, this is no Open Range. It is bleak and joyless," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). "The Missing is neither cathartic nor escapist, neither persuasive nor inspiring. It's just a gritty, exhausting tale of perseverance and survival that takes too long to get to the end without enough of a reason to get there."

Todd Campbell (Christian Spotlight) takes a different view: "I thought this movie was going to be heavy in the shamanism/medicine man material, but it proved to be a true shoot 'em up Western, very similar to The Searchers or The Shadow Riders with bits of Unforgiven thrown in for good measure. I would recommend, with reservations, this movie to older fans of Westerns, especially since Hollywood rarely produces any good Westerns with little language, little sex, and the traditional cowboy violence. Do not bring children to this movie."

Peter Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) writes, "The Missing is a well-crafted film, one of Howard's better efforts, and it wisely allows its characters to retain a degree of mystery. Its explicit treatment of religious themes also makes it a good conversation piece for viewers who want to explore the distinctions between medicine, miracle and magic, even if the film ultimately gives the upper hand to magic."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) is also impressed. "Prejudice. Forgiveness. Religious faith. Parent/child relationships. Personal redemption. These themes and others make The Missing more substantive than your average cowboys and Indians, save-the-homestead western. In fact, it goes out of its way to paint Native Americans and whites as equally human and complex. It's a shame the film is so violent."

Movieguide disagrees: "[It] tries to be all things to all people and becomes less the sum of its parts. Furthermore, multiple endings don't achieve a proper climax that would propel the movie past its deficiencies. Most of The Missing seems to indicate that the Indian magic is stronger than Maggie's Christianity, although the ending tips the scales slightly in the other direction. Even so, however, it is brute force that eventually defeats the forces of darkness."

Some mainstream critics rave about the film, but the majority see it as a sub-par Ron Howard release.