Much will and should be made one day about the metaphor of the individual plot points and of the metaphysics that lie at the heart of THE MISSING. The way it portrays the clash of cultures between the white settlers and the Native Americans whose lands were taken, corrupting the souls of those on both sides. There is not time enough or space, for that matter, to go into that in the detail it so richly deserves here. Suffice to say that Ron Howard has created an epic western that is the spiritual heir to THE SEARCHERS, one that doesnt traffic in the supposed romance of the Old West, but one that does capture its sweep, its mythos and its particular, hard-edged brand of mysticism.
The story is of a man who has gone in search of his soul, and a woman who does not realize that she has lost hers. The woman is Maggie (Cate Blanchett), the local healer in her part of New Mexico and a single mother trying to make a go of her ranch with the help of a ranch hand (Aaron Eckhart), who is also her secret lover. Though gifted, she sees healing the way a mechanic sees an engine, there is no room for considering the emotional implications, as we see in ample detail during a tooth extraction that introduces us to her beside manner. Maggie nurses an enormous anger within her that corrodes as surely as poison, but which she takes as a matter of course, a familiar landmark in her emotional landscape. The source of that anger suddenly appears on her doorstep one day in the person of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), the father who abandoned her as a child to live with the Apache. Hes reappeared asking for help with a breathing ailment and offering money to help her with her ranch and kids. No sooner does she send him packing with no small violent outburst, than the older of her two daughters is kidnapped by Indians and with no help forthcoming from the law or the army, she has no choice but to turn to him to bring her daughter home before she and the other women who have been kidnapped are taken across the border and sold.
The bulk of the film is the journey the two of them make, her younger daughter in tow, and the grudging accommodation she is forced to make in order to let him help her. Like a pilgrims progress, each stop has its own lesson to teach. An ineffectual army general (larger than usual Val Kilmer) who hangs first and asks questions later, is caught between his men, who would rather loot than protect, and an Indian population that has been rightly ticked off by his own commanding officers. There is the requisite scene of Maggie nursing a wounded Indian and gaining a begrudging respect for him and for his father, who are old friends of her own father and whom she questions about his life among the Indians. And by softening her strict and narrow interpretation of what it means to be an upstanding Christian woman when confronted with the all but undeniable reality that the gang leader they are pursuing (Eric Schweig) is a shaman of the highest and most malevolent order. With each stop, another layer of armor is shed from Maggies heart, lightening the load, as it were.
There is not a false note in the entire film. The vast horizons in which Howard firmly sets the action are effective simultaneously in showing the daunting search that our pilgrims are on and in intimating the gulf between father and daughter, and between daughter and inner peace of any kind. Violence, of which there is plenty, becomes an externalization of the violent perturbations of the spirit. The brotherhood message, and of course there is one, is handled with a deftly understated intelligence. Sam and an Apache pal swap gossip and tease each other with all the good nature found in any relationship. No noble savage, no superior world-view, just two guys shooting the breeze in a quiet moment between gunplay and chases. The performances are as spare and as potent as a zen poem. Blanchette is flinty and fierce in her mother love and father hate. Jones is more rugged than the Rockies and yet with a soul at least as large. As their nemesis, and perhaps Blanchettes evil doppelganger,Schweig radiates a malevolence that seems to have a physical force behind it, delivered with a piercing stare that doesnt require the twisted teeth or the black talons of fingernails to add to the menace.
THE MISSING succeeds as a western in the classic mode established by Ford and Wyler, but its more than that. As a consideration of the human condition, it is a revelation. My favorite moment in THE MISSING is delivered by Sam to Maggie as they are talking. she guardedly, one night. He tells her that he came back because a rattlesnake had bitten him and that a medicine man told him that in order to recover he would, among other things, need to help his family. Maggie, who has made it clear that she wouldnt accept an apology if he offered one, is still shocked that his reasons for returning had nothing to do with remorse, only self-interest. He is, of course, speaking in an idiom of symbols about the regret and pain of his self-inflicted spiritual wound. She has no frame of reference. And there, in a nutshell, is the seed of the whole worlds problems, more than not seeing the other persons point of view, not even realizing that there is one.