By Nathanael Griffis
My goal for Buried Cinema is to dig up the unjustly forgotten and obscure, to unearth gems that have been buried under the sediment of cinematic history, to shed light upon the lesser-known, and to give the underrated their due respect. These are the treasures that deserve a wider audience. –Tom Kapr, Editor
(MINOR SPOILER ALERT)
What if I told you Ron Howard was making a movie. “Okay, sure, what kind of movie?” A Western. “Awesome. Who’s in it?” Only Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart, and Val Kilmer. “What’s it about?” Jones and Blanchett chase down an Apache Brujo, who’s like a witch doctor on steroids, after he kidnaps Blanchett’s daughter. “Okay, that sounds pretty good. I’m in.”
Apparently not. For some reason, no one saw this movie. The Missing came out in 2003, but if you ask around about it now, you’ll probably get a confused look and the question, “Ron Howard made a Western?” Yes he did, and it was quite good. Adapted from the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, The Missing was Howard’s first film after A Beautiful Mind, so it should have had the popularity of that movie going for it. Instead, it came and went.
The Missing handles spiritualism and supernatural elements better than any Western I’ve seen. Tommy Lee Jones plays Samuel Jones, who left his daughter Magdalena (Cate Blanchett) when she was a child to go native. The movie opens with Jones returning to a grown Magdalena, now a mother of two. When Magdalena’s oldest daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by the Brujo (played with a balance of brooding and a frightening apathy for the horrific by Eric Schweig), Maggie has to turn to her father track down the Apache. What ensues is a disturbing look at racism, spiritualism, religion, family, and human trafficking in 19th-century New Mexico.
If Dances with Wolves had been a horror film, Costner might have made something akin to The Missing. It has some of the most horrific scenes I’ve seen in a Western. Let me put it to you this way: the description below the R-rating that says “violence” is a huge understatement. (On a side note, this makes me really excited for what Ron Howard will do with The Dark Tower.) I’m still not sure what happened to Aaron Eckhart’s character, but I am sure I don’t want to know. Howard perfectly mixes showing the gore and pulling the camera away, so that the violence has just the right effect. The combined effects of the Brujo’s unpredictable and creative penchant for violence is beyond terrifying (especially in a scene in which he melts a photographer’s eyes out), and the starkly shot remains of his victims will leave you squeamish after the film. Perhaps this is why people have a hard time swallowing the movie.
It’s worth watching though. I’ve seen a few films that try to mix Native American spiritualism with the classic Western and fail. (See Renegade starring Vincent Cassel–or don’t.) The Missing, though, manages to balance the supernatural elements with a startling grace and effectiveness. I give credit to the performances and to Ken Kaufman’s script in this case. Tommy Lee Jones gives Sam, an unlikeable father figure, a level of depth that has to be hinted at in the tone of his voice and in his physical presence, because the character is too prideful to allow the audience to see how deep his empathy runs. Likewise, Magdalena has her father’s stubbornness and never fully overcomes her racism against Indians, but Cate Blanchett’s performance is such an engaging blend of vulnerability and strength that we can sympathize. There is simply no choice: the viewer must watch as the two characters grow but never fully reunite.
The Missing is almost a movie of redemption, and the fact that it never reaches that level is a great strength of the film. There are some things in life (like, as the movie points out, abandoning you child), that would take more than a weekend to fix and forgive. The film understands this, and Sam, even as he longs to be close to his daughter, does as well. There is beauty in his struggle with resigning himself to the inability to be redeemed or the slim chance he can make things right.
Every character in The Missing has depth, even in the minor roles. Val Kilmer and Aaron Eckhart provide strong support. The same is true of Evan Rachel Wood; and watch out for Jenna Boyd, who plays Maggie’s younger daughter, Dot– she should be old enough to start getting recognition, and she deserves it for this role.
The Missing is not your typical Western. The end is haunting and leaves you thinking. It’s hard to classify, and hard to watch at times, but if you love Westerns, this is a must-see that shouldn’t be forgotten.
(The Missing at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338188)