The Missing

on November 26, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
Call it "The Searchers" for the politically correct. Whereas in 1956 John Wayne rode off into the wilderness to hunt down the Apaches who kidnapped his niece, here Cate Blanchett's frontierswoman Maggie Gilkeson is on a mission to rescue her daughter with the help of a people she's heretofore mistrusted. The action in this cross-genre Western/supernatural thriller, set circa 1885, starts with the giddy-up of a Pony Express mustang and continues at a swift clip as we're quickly introduced to Maggie's fierce combination of open-hearted compassion and gritty pragmatism when she yanks to the last rotten tooth out of an old woman's mouth, then asks, "Can you pay me for this today?" Soon after, another stranger in need shows up at her door, but this one she turns away: She has no room for the father who abandoned her 20 years before to run wild with the Native American tribes of the American Southwest.

The reappearance of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) after so many years proves fortuitous, however, when Maggie's oldest daughter Lily (Rachel Evan Wood), a rebellious teenager who dreams of moving to the city, is kidnapped by Apaches to be sold south of the border. The cavalry (led by a lieutenant played by Val Kilmer in cameo) proves to be of little help, and Jones is the only one with the skills to track her. An early feminist who, though devoutly religious, is unapologetic for her daughters having different dads and her intimate relationship with the ranch hand who is not her husband, Maggie has never asked a man for help with anything. But she offers a reluctant truce here, and they head south, her younger daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) in tow, to catch up to Lily's kidnappers before they reach the Mexican border.

What happens next should come as no surprise. Marketed as a thriller, "The Missing" delivers on that count with a pursuit that's equal parts rough riding and stealthy tracking, but ultimately what the story is really about is family and the lengths to which Maggie goes to preserve hers--even, as in the case with her father, unintentionally. It's a theme familiar to helmer Ron Howard, whose "Ransom" had a similar, albeit contemporized, plot about kidnapping, here delivered with an edge as prickly and precarious as the rocky desert through which they travel. Along the way, prejudicial Maggie, who forbids Dot from making physical contact with a Native American they meet along the way--"You don't know what diseases these people have"--eventually accepts this same man's help when it's revealed that their common enemy is colorblind.

What makes this familiar story arc worth following are the unforgettable performances. Blanchett, proving with this follow-up to "Veronica Guerin" and the "Lord of the Rings" franchise to possess as diverse a range as any actress working today, has somehow transformed her angular features to look as at home on range as they do in Dublin or Middle-Earth. She carries the picture on her girdle-supported back, and, when she says, "I don't know how to leave her," you don't either. As her daughter, Boyd is a spitting image in spirit. While no one would argue that it's a probably not good idea to take an adolescent on a dangerous trek across the wilderness, her passionate insistence that she be brought along is a fit that no one could turn down. Meanwhile, craggy Jones, whose character affords the film its only moments of levity (his Indian name is "Shit for Luck"), is comfortable and credible as a man who's lived his life among the Native Americans. And handsome Eric Schweig unrecognizable in heavy, grotesque makeup is terrifying as the brujo who kidnaps Lily. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Eric Schweig, Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Ken Kaufman. Produced by Brian Grazer, Daniel Ostroff and Ron Howard. A Columbia release. Western/Thriller. Rated R for violence. Running time: 130 min

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