The Missing

Starring:
  • Al Gore's Roommate
  • My Queen: Cate Blanchett
  • Clint Howard (It Wouldn't Be the Same Without Him)

 

 
Directed by Richie Cunningham

"Opie, would you shut up about your Oscar and just let me act in the damn movie?"

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 marriage—who 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 purity—the virginal lass—to 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 Ethan—when 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 together—both 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 confused—a 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 Indian—which, 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 boredom—he 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 Western—it'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.

The Pitch:
1 Unforgiven
Plus
 
1 Willow
Equals
 
2 The Missing
See It For:

Tommy Lee Jones after an all-night pot session with Al Gore.