The most effective moments in Ron Howard’s The Missing concern Cate Blanchett’s face. As Maggie, a “healer” in 1885 New Mexico, she’s confronted with any number of daily difficulties, from chopping wood, to single-parenting her daughters, fractious Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and solid citizen Dot (Jenna Boyd), to making time for her stalwart lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart). Not to mention the whole healing business. The film begins as she’s called on to pull out an old woman’s bad tooth: Maggie fixes her gaze, applies the pliers and yanks. As the woman wails, her own face remains a picture of seen-it-all determination.
Maggie’s toughness is surely enhanced by Blanchett’s fabulous cheekbones and icy eyes. It’s surprising, perhaps, how few stunningly beautiful actors would be as convincing in the intricate, powerhouse roles she’s chosen (for examples, in Elizabeth , The Gift , Charlotte Gray , Heaven , and Veronica Guerin ). Blanchett makes emotional sense of intense adversity in her decidedly unflashy performances; she’s simultaneously sympathetic and searing, revealing in instants whole backstories full of pain and tenacity. That she often does so in movies that don’t do her justice makes her achievements more resounding (the elegant scary movie Elizabeth would be the exception).
Just so, Blanchett’s Maggie is beset in The Missing (adapted by Ken Kaufman from Thomas Eidson’s novel, The Last Ride), when Brake and the girls don’t return home from a cattle-selling day trip. Lilly’s been kidnapped by evil Apaches, and so, she and Dot head to town in order to enlist the help of Sheriff Purdy (Clint Howard) and the military. As the Sheriff has his telegraph operator (Rance Howard) tap out a message using the latest technology, Maggie gazes outside, where she sees the fast-approaching future in the form of a voice-recording device, come to town as part of fair. Remembering that she made Lilly work instead of attending the fair, Maggie watches a girl giggle at hearing herself. The reverse shot of Blanchett’s face tells you everything you need to know, in one perfectly composed moment.
Throughout the film, Salvatore Totino’s camera seeks out this face, and it never fails to convey complex emotional mixes. This makes it all the more disappointing that the movie — like so many others before it — doesn’t keep up. That’s not to say that it doesn’t begin with promise. Maggie’s work as a healer grants her a certain experience and insight beyond those of usual women in Hollywood Westerns. It also affiliates her with Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), her estranged father, whose first appearance at film’s start leads directly to her absolute rejection. Seems that he abandoned Maggie, her mother and little brother 20 years before, in order to follow a hawk he saw in a vision. In other words, he’s been living with the Chiricahua Apaches, and she hates him for his multiple betrayals — of family, race, and nation.
Of course, the crisis of Lilly’s kidnapping means that Maggie will be needing Jones’ help. For, as it happens, he’s an expert tracker, and that sheriff she went to see offers no help at all, going so far as to tell her that the cavalry is moving in exactly the opposite direction as the kidnappers are headed (the military goes north, and the kidnappers, according to Jones, are going to Mexico where they plan to sell the girls to iniquitous non-English speakers). At least this is what Jones tells her, and though she hates him like poison, Maggie is soon convinced that he is the only one who can (or will) help her. And so, she and Dot pack up their gear and head south with Jones.
The saga that follows vaguely resembles The Searchers, with newfangled complications laid on top of those already structuring John Ford’s original. While Jones is atoning for his abandonment of his white family and Maggie is learning to appreciate his very useful Indian “magic” (beads and totems, as well as some chanting and conjuring, mixed in with Bible reading by Dot). And while Jones is reading signs and following mystical shadows of hawks, Maggie is willing to act on her observation of white misconduct and depravity. That is, after imploring one Lt. Ducharme (Val Kilmer, on screen for about five minutes) to help her find Lilly, she is deflated but also educated by his indifference (he watches his men loot the home of a butchered white family).
Such crossings of expectations make The Missing a thorny and even compelling story, for a time. The most outrageous emblem of these thematic and practical difficulties is the head kidnapper in charge, Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a psychotic Apache brujo (witch) who tosses colored dust into adversaries’ faces to make them blind and bewildered (his badly scarred face again calls up memories of The Searchers, whose primary Indian villain was Cicatrice [Henry Brand]). That he is also involved in the material banalities of selling white and Indian girls makes his resistance look like crass big pimping. He compounds and complicates this horror with his best trick, wearing photos of his victims pinned to his vest. These little images, at once grimly haunting and glittering in the sun, point toward another recording technology, one that specifically captures faces. Pesh-Chidin deploys this amazing technology by commanding a quaking white photographer to do take pictures of the grimacing, trembling victims. For Pesh-Chidin, such “taking” is a means to possess bodies if not souls, to proclaim the supremacy of his magic and will.
His power is such that he lords over an oddly multi-raced band of marauders and miscreants, an example for the arrogant Lt. Ducharme of the consequences of race-mixing. Pesh-Chidin’s men include whites and Indians (these last being disgruntled former cavalry scouts, mad at their abuse by racist white soldiers), now making money by way of the dominant capitalist system that has so abused them. That they are selling their “merchandise” to nasty Mexicans only underlines the problem — which The Missing doesn’t take up as a problem, only represents as an obstacle for the increasingly pale and flush-cheeked Maggie.
More mixing, to a more productive end, arrives in the form of Jones’ old buddy Kayitah (Jay Tavare), who happens to be seeking the same marauders, as they have taken his son’s wife to be. These searchers, then, are a motley crew, making use of multiple magics, bible passages as much as native spirit chants, along with some sharp shooting, in order to rescue the stolen girls and defeat their enemies. Certainly, Jones’ devotion to the “Indian” ways is initially a problem for his daughter, but her gradual acceptance of him and the ways suggests a kind of melding of cultures. If only the film might have managed its many strands in a less reductive form. As it is, The Missing indicts the general push of modernization, as white populations move West and South, glances briefly at other futures offered by technologies (recording and military), and can’t quite grapple with the displacement that is the white settlers’ lot, by definition.