In director Ron Howard’s The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones’ Samuel Jones takes his place among the oldest archetypes in the Western genre — the white man who has lived among the Indians till he has at last become one. This plot device, used in Hombre and Nevada Smith and myriad other movies, renders Samuel what the late Pauline Kael once referred to as “the double loner — an ideally alienated, masochistic modern hero [whose] sympathies are with the Indians, though he generally comes through and acts for the whites.” She was not being complimentary.
Kael wrote her essay “Saddle Sore” in 1967, but things haven’t changed. Jones is initially mistaken for “some kind of Apache son of a bitch” (by a Mexican worker on a white family’s ranch), almost killed by white soldiers who believe he’s an Indian, then brutalized by Indians trying to eradicate the white man within. He’s damned if he is, damned ’cause he ain’t.
The Missing, based on Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride and adapted for the screen by the man who wrote Muppets From Space, may strike some as a retelling of John Ford’s The Searchers, in which John Wayne spends years tracking down a niece kidnapped by Indians. But Opie is no John Ford, and his movie is as much about the reconciliation between an estranged daughter (Maggie, another tough-as-bullets role in the arsenal of Cate Blanchett) and her father as it is about the search for a girl taken by Indians. Howard’s is a new-age, witchy-woman Western in which Blanchett’s medical “healer” provides a curative of a different, touchy-feely sort — the repairing of a rift between a daughter and the man who left her years ago to get in touch with his Injun side.
But The Missing may leave you with the icky feeling that what you’re watching is no more enlightened than the Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s, in which men with red faces were savages and predators. And here, the Indians aren’t just bad guys; magic man Chidin (Eric Schweig) is a comic-book supervillain with a grotesquely scarred face and the power to push a woman to the brink of death from miles away.
In The Searchers, Wayne wants to find his niece only to kill her for becoming Indian. Watching it now, it’s hard to tell whether Ford intended to appall audiences or reassure them; they were supposed to root for Wayne, no matter how appalling his sentiments. Howard, selling archaic racism beneath the guise of popcorn enlightenment, doesn’t seem to care if we’re offended, as long as we leave the theater entertained and feeling all mushy about how much everybody loves everybody else — ‘cept the Injuns.
When The Missing isn’t offending, it’s dragging and rehashing. One more time, Jones plays a man hunting the disappeared. And one more time, Ransom director Howard tells a kidnapping campfire story in which a parent will do anything to retrieve a child. And like Kevin Costner’s Open Range, it’s another overlong and pretentious Western that takes forever to get to its gunfight showdown. What that film and The Missing share is an insistence on taking two hours to tell a story that has become an aside in most postmodern Westerns. (In Silverado, the retrieval of a stolen child is but a tiny chapter in a sprawling story.)
The only thing The Missing isn’t missing is a handful of climaxes, all of them of the anti variety that leave you believing — then praying — that the movie’s over a good thirty minutes before its actual finale. Occasionally the movie even plays like unintended comedy — Blazing Saddles with a wet blanket thrown over it. Saddle sore, indeed.