What elements really make a western? A setting somewhere west of the Mississippi river, of course. A cast that includes cowboys, Indians, and a mysterious stranger. Shootouts, chases across the desert, ineffective law enforcement, and some kind of female in danger. I think that's about everything. The Missing has all of these elements in spades but it didn't really feel like a western to me. Despite being, basically, a feminist, pro-Nartive American take on The Searchers the film lacked grit. I'm not saying The Missing is a bad movie, it just wasn't a western in the way I usually think of westerns. It's more like all the ingredients of a western poured into the Ron Howard formula.
In 19th century New Mexico, Maggie Gilkeson lives on a ranch with her two daughters and a hired man. The hired man is not her husband, but he performs husbandly duties. One day, a mysterious stranger comes to town. His name is Samuel and he turns out to be Maggie's estranged father. Many years ago, Samuel abandoned Maggie and the rest of the family and, "went Indian." The family suffered greatly as a result and when Samuel shows up on his daughter's doorstep, she throws him out. The next day, Maggie's hired man is killed and one of her daughters, Lilly, is kidnapped by a group of American Indians. Now the one she despises the most is the only one who can help her. Together, Maggie, her father Samuel, and her youngest daughter Dot embark on a rescue mission to save Lilly before the bandits sell her in Mexico.
It's a pretty fine setup and so is the cast. Cate Blanchett is pitch perfect as the determined frontierswoman, and Tommy Lee Jones appropriately tones things down to play the humble father full of regrets. Both of the girls are great. Jenna Boyd is charming as the feisty Dot Gilkeson, and Evan Rachel Wood plays a very different girl than her character in Thirteen. Still, there was something, well, missing from The Missing.
Somehow, the film just didn't get my pulse going. The Missing is certainly Ron Howard's darkest film of recent memory, but it still lacked any real sense of danger. I was never excited about what might happen next or concerned about "how are they ever going to get out of this!" Instead I worried about, "Is this escape attempt going to be predictably foiled by this one chick freaking out?" and "Is this movie going to go on for another twenty minutes because Maggie and her father haven't made up yet?"
The Missing plays things a little too by-the-book for me. It's the kind of movie I would take my fussy out-of-town relatives to, but not something I would recommend to discerning cinemagoers. I love the strong female characters, I love the scenery, I think the story is plenty creative, but the film overall just didn't excite me.
I think the film's conscious efforts to be politically correct are what get in the way. For example, the American Indians who go around kidnapping the women and girls turn out to be deserters from the army: some Apache, some white. WOW. That's a great sub-plot, but it's never explored. In addition, none of the kidnappers would even dream of hurting or abusing the women because, "the Mexicans will want them in good condition." I would jump for joy if this were historically accurate, but my instincts tell me differently. I sincerely appreciate the filmmakers' cultural sensitivity, but they really strained the guts out of this film.
If you're like most people in the U.S., you'll go to the movies this weekend to avoid interacting with your family. It's okay, everyone does it. If you want a film that is easy to swallow, well-acted, and (for the most part) interesting from start to finish, try The Missing. Although, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone under age twelve due to some mild violence. If you're looking for something a little more unusual but in keeping with the theme of family coming together, try Pieces of April or In America.
-Megan A. Denny