The Soul of the Western
Ron Howard's movie has its heart in the right place. The
Missing is about a Christian woman Maggie (Cate Blanchett)
whose long-estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) has taken up
the way of the Apache for approximately the same reasons Richard
Gere took up Buddhism: The white man purging his soul with
mysticism. Of course Christianity is a form of mysticism too,
but rarely do Christians in America think of it in those terms.
The Puritan Curse has passed down the idea that the "mysticism"
of foreign religions is something false and impure, especially
to literalists like the Puritans, who perceived the "savagery"of
New England Indian tribes as Satan's attack on their souls.
This literalism throws up a wall between ourselves and others:
If our way is right, then everyone else must be wrong. Of
course the sheer logistic of this viewpoint is absurd, so
volumes of American literature are devoted to the re-education
of steadfast Christians who, through sometimes Jobian trials,
find common ground with fellow spiritualists.
The Missing doesn't delve into the nature of myth
and man like the deepest Westerns do, but it makes a decent
pop-level attempt to bridge cultures. Maggie raises her two
children as a single mom on the prairie, resisting the newly
emerging city life for the purity of the woods. Brake (Aaron
Eckhart) lives with her but sleeps in a separate room, clinging
to hopes of marriagewho can blame him for his devotion
to such a figure? Her father Sam shows up, and Maggie's Christian
charity (like her chastity after the children are asleep)
breaks apart. Sam is a bad man making amends, and it seems
that the Apache ways have softened him a bit. Maggie has none
of it, until some Indians (teamed up with white men) steal
her daughter (Lily, played by Evan Rachel Wood), who is as
much of a rebel as we imagine Maggie was. Yes, this is soft-boiled
The Searchers, with the Indians stealing the personification
of Christian puritythe virginal lassto draw the
white man into a confrontation with evil.
The Searchers isn't a racist story of good/white man
versus bad/savage man. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a bad
man himself, having spent the Civil War murdering Indians
in Texas. Yes, the Indians are narrative's antagonists, but
they are on the same moral and human plane as Ethanwhen
Ethan looks Chief Scar in the eye, it is as equals, two embittered
men, sinners by the cause of war, right down to a white man
scalping a Comanche. Here, the pseudo-Apache and Christian
work together to recapture the pure soul, navigating a series
of mythic symbols (rattlesnakes, etc.) that bind them togetherboth
as people and symbols of their respective cultures.
So, yes, Ron Howard's movie has its heart in the right place,
and the movie sports two fine performances by two fine actors.
Cate Blanchett is wrapped in tight-lipped fury, whose wrath
is both a function of her sinful past and a defense against
the world. She quivers with anger and resolve, combustible
as campfire blown about by prairie wind. Tommy Lee Jones quivers
because he's old, vulnerable, and confuseda man determined
to do right because that's all he's got left. He sports an
accent that sounds like a white man doing an impression of
an Indianwhich, it must be said, is precisely his character.
Jones, Al Gore's college roommate, even gets a swipe at the
Seminole's land: "Florida. It's a sure-hell shithole
of a swamp."
The problem is that The Missing has the heart of a
Western, but it lacks the soul. John Ford mythologized the
land by giving us a sense of the vast expanse and howling
wind, the purple mountain majesties, the fruited plains. Long
periods of time pass without much happening, but without boredomhe
makes us feel as the cowboys did, breathing in the majesty
of the physicality of the West, the sense of individualism,
freedom, and toughness it took to survive. This feeling is
the soul of the Western. This is the American myth.
In Ron Howard's movie, the costumes are right, even the story
is right, but the feel is all wrong. The edits are too quick,
as if he's afraid of boring us, even though he has all this
landscape to work with. Howard occasionally grasps some beautiful
panoramas, but he doesn't linger on them; he just gives us
a glimpse and moves on, like George Lucas and his landscapes
in the Star Wars prequels. Without the time and space
for all this to set in, The Missing just feels like
any other pop movie, just dressed like a Westernit's
the cinematic equivalent of Garth Brooks. Like a Chris Gains
performance, it feels fake because it is fake. Howard's camera
is way too active, and he resorts to camera tricks as narrative,
using flashbacks and dream sequences rather than just suggesting
nightmares and giving the audience the time to fill in the
details ourselves, like we do when Ethan Edwards speaks hatefully
of Comanche but won't elaborate on how he's spent the war.
Ron Howard overdirects The Missing; he cleanses the
true grit from the frames.