The Missing (2003)

The Missing follows The Searchers in being pretty much one big chase scene stretched out over the course of one Western. The difference here is that the party chasing the bad guys includes a strong female character, and the relationship between the two leads is something that needs repairing. Apart from that, if you’ve seen The Searchers, or another film inspired by it, you’ve seen this film before.

At some point in the late 1800s, we meet our main characters. We first see Maggie (Cate Blanchett), who runs a farm and also works as a “healer” for anyone that happens to stumble upon her home. She has hired Brake (Aaron Eckhart) to help around the farm, and also to provide her the joys of marriage without the commitment. She has two daughters, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), who hates living here, and Dot (Jenna Boyd), a young mind fascinated by everything about the world.

A Native American man shows up at the farm. He calls her “Magdalene,” and she immediately wants him to leave. We learn that his name is Sam (Tommy Lee Jones), and that he’s a wannabe Native American. He also happens to be Maggie’s father. He deserted her a long time ago to live with the Native’s, and has inexplicably shown up at this point in time. Despite being told to leave (and he does), don’t worry, as he’ll be important in just a little bit.

The next day, all three characters still on the farm not played by Cate Blanchett head out to the woods to herd cattle, only they don’t return. Maggie heads out and finds Brake killed and skinned, Lilly missing, and Dot wandering around aimlessly. Maggie’s father is the initial suspect, but he was in jail the whole time after getting drunk thanks to his daughter’s rejection. She gets him released, and the two team up, along with Dot, to rescue Lilly from her captors.

Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? We soon learn that it was rogue Apaches who stole Lilly, and that they plan to take her down to the Mexican border. Considering the fact that they live in New Mexico, they don’t have a lot of time to catch up to these men and get Lilly back to safety, either by killing the bandits or by buying her back, one or the other. I’m not sure which is preferred, as both get mentioned despite circumstances never changing.

Throughout the film there are a lot of close-calls, near-rescues, situations that would cause any ordinary person to turn back, and also magic. The latter part is handled terribly, coming up once and only once in a scene that made me laugh because of how ridiculous it was. It could have worked if it was incorporated as often as it was in the book the film is based on, The Last Ride, where it was used as a counter to Maggie’s staunch Christianity. Neither is brought up too much, though, making both feel unnecessary.

Not beating us over the head with some of its more delicate points is something that The Missing does well (as subtle as a Ron Howard movie will be, anyway). For instance, we find out that Maggie never got a good look at Lilly’s father, meaning that she’s the product of rape. It’s not dwelt on, and it’s not like Maggie actually comes out and says “I was raped.” However, an opportunity was missed here. Since Lilly wasn’t Maggie’s choice, you might suspect that there’s a moral dilemma about actually going on a rescue quest. She has to put herself and her youngest daughter in harm’s way to save someone she never planned for. However, that never comes up and she becomes as determined as a person can be.

Another missed opportunity comes from the relationship between Maggie and her father. While it improves throughout the film, I kept wondering why that was happening. They rarely talk things out, Sam came back for completely selfish reasons, and while it’s not like Sam acts poorly once he’s back, there isn’t any actual bonding between the two. But she starts warming up to him for absolutely no real reason. What could have been worked organically into the plot ends up being ignored completely apart from a couple of scenes that stand out for the wrong reasons; they feel forced because of this.

You expect these actors to turn in good performances. They do. There’s not much more else to say about them except to say that it’s good on them for keeping a straight face during what could have been turned into a parody. When you think about how preposterous this story is, and the lengths that the characters go to, with a couple of different choices, this could easily be a comedy. But the actors are all dedicated to keeping things on the straight and narrow, and with Ron Howard’s direction keeping them on this path, the film never even thinks about taking that route.

The Missing is a well-made Western that takes a familiar story and doesn’t do much with it. It’s nothing special, and there are plenty of missed opportunities that could have elevated it above being simply good. The actors help, as they all give dedicated performances, but with nothing more done with this material, it’s simply a well-made Western, nothing more. You can appreciate the work that went into it, but it’s not necessarily a film that’s worth your time, largely because fans of the genre will have seen it before, and newcomers have better films to go back and watch instead of it.

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