Something is definitely `Missing'

November 26, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Missing, Ron Howard's latest grim suspense film (it's like a period-piece twin of his earlier Ransom), gives "adult Westerns" a bad name. It follows a frontier healer (Cate Blanchett) in 1885 New Mexico as she goes searching for her kidnapped teen-age daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with the help of her younger daughter (Jena Boyd) and her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones). Partly a dysfunctional-family tale set in the Old West, the movie paints a bleak and unimaginative portrait of pioneer America as a chaotic, unforgiving wilderness filled with venal or cowardly white folk and warring factions of Native Americans.

If you think campfire comedy and yarn-spinning provided ways for trailblazers to make it through the night, don't expect much of it here. Sure, Jones manages to infuse his lines with flashes of sardonic personality. But except for Aaron Eckhart as the heroine's lover (don't grow too fond of him) and a father-and-son team of Apaches who join forces with Blanchett's family, everyone seems determined to prove how ornery they can be. Even Wood starts out as a petulant, disrespectful little princess.

This is the kind of self-consciously daring movie in which the cavalry runs away from the rescue, a sheriff in the nearest town won't lend his support to the hunt, and good old Uncle Sam himself appears only in the form of an ominous parade figure on stilts. As a Thanksgiving release, it's Geronimo's revenge.

Jones left his family when Blanchett was a girl because he decided to "go Indian." Howard and his screenwriter, Ken Kaufman, treat Blanchett's gradual acceptance of Jones as a parable about the need to overcome prejudice. Otherwise, they'd be accused of racism themselves, since their lead villain is an Apache witch (Eric Schweig) who kidnaps girls of every race and sells them in Mexico.

Schweig uses rattlesnakes as terror tools and drapes himself with tintypes of his victims, like a serial killer amassing trophies. He's the cruelest Apache since the psycho in the 1969 horror Western The Stalking Moon. But Howard shields himself against the onus of racism by emphasizing the presence in Schweig's company of perverse white scalawags as well as disillusioned Indian scouts who feel betrayed by the U.S. Army.

Jones gives the movie its one claim of legitimacy. A phenomenal actor, he wrings every iota of black comedy and lyricism from his character's everywhere-a-misfit status. He even swims easily through the movie's mile-wide, yard-deep mystical streak. He makes us believe that his character would reconnect with his daughter as part of a shaman-prescribed cure for snakebite. Were it not for Jones, sequences like the one in which Schweig uses a left-behind hairbrush to curse Blanchett with a fever from afar would play like an out-take from a grade-C voodoo movie.

This is one of those rare Blanchett performances (Charlotte Gray was another) where no acting sorcery ignites and all her effort shows. She gets lost in the shadows of the handsome yet monotonously brooding cinematography. The best revisionist Westerns, no matter how downbeat, leave you feeling moved or excited by the mystery and freedom of men and women creating new paths for themselves in unknown territory. The Missing is so dour it makes you wonder why they didn't all just pack up and go back East.

The Missing

Starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Ron Howard

Rated R

Released by Sony

Time 130 minutes

Sun Score **

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