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Movie review: 'The Missing'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Good movie westerns these days may be too few and far between, but Ron Howard's "The Missing" is almost a great one. Set in 1885 New Mexico, this dark, bristling adventure stars Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones as two unlikely allies: a tough, grieving frontier mother and her despised, long-absent father, joined on a hunt for the woman's missing teenage daughter who has been kidnapped by a band of renegade Apache scouts for sale into slavery in Mexico.

Maggie Gilkeson and Samuel Jones are richer, deeper and more memorable than the people we usually see in adventure movies. Maggie, wonderfully played by Blanchett, is a hard, embittered frontierswoman who rules the roost on her isolated ranch, living with her lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart) and her teenage and preteen daughters Lilly and Dot (Evan Rachel Wood of "Thirteen" and Jenna Boyd). Samuel is the man who made her bitter, the father who left her family 20 years ago to live among the Indians and now turns up snake-bit and needing care. But, soon after, when Brake is killed and Lilly taken, Maggie turns to Samuelfor help in tracking down and rescuing her daughter.

The first part of the movie is packed with horrific images evoking something we rarely saw in the first golden heyday of the movie western (1940-62): a west that is vast, cold, lonely and full of danger. As the tiny posse - Maggie, Samuel and Dot - heads south the picture moves from a landscape strikingly wintry and violent, full of black trees and glowering skies, to an inferno of rock-strewn deserts and towering hills. It's the deadly site of the inevitable final showdown with the outlaw leader and Apache witch, Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig).

But, though the images of "The Missing" are majestic, it's the characters that make the film so unusual: not just Maggie and Samuel, but selfish daughter Lilly, the terrifying and supernaturally gifted Pesh-Chidin and his mixed-race gang, Samuel's old Apache friend Kayitah (Jay Tavare) and, in a juicy cameo, Val Kilmer as U.S. Cavalry Lt. Ducharme, whose troop becomes almost tragically involved in the hunt.

The material of "The Missing," based on the 1995 novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson, is very reminiscent of John Ford's "The Searchers," the 1956 western classic with John Wayne as the Civil War veteran and loner Ethan Edwards, obsessively hunting the Comanches who stole his niece Debbie. The movie is regarded by many (including me) as the greatest of all movie westerns. But, despite some direct references (including Maggie's last speech), "The Missing" is no slavish homage. Indeed, it's a picture that often seems to be a critical, modernist response to "The Searchers": a feminist, pro-Native American variation on the theme.

Blanchett's Maggie, like her recent portrait of Veronica Guerin, is almost furiously self-sufficient, brave and driven, frontierswoman as avenging angel. Jones' Samuel, who gains his wisdom from his shifting position between the white and Apache worlds, is almost as powerful and mysterious as Wayne's Ethan and more realistically drawn. Schweig, the excellent part-Inuit actor who played Uncas in Michael Mann's exciting 1992 film "The Last of the Mohicans," is a scarier villain than "The Searchers'." Scar, a bottomlessly evil, hideously pocked nemesis with terrifying supernatural gifts.

A good part of the contemporary audience, people who like "The Searchers" well enough but find parts of it old-fashioned and corny, will probably and mistakenly prefer "The Missing," a movie more respectful of Native American culture, more even-handed and modern in portraying women and more skeptical of manifest destiny, machismo and the myth of the frontier. Just as Kevin Costner's recent "Open Range" tried, not too successfully, to update the myth of the range wars, "The Missing" looks at the myths of the Indian Wars and their aftermath with fresh eyes.

The movie is thrilling and beautiful, only really stumbling in its last action scenes, when Howard tries the kind of battle in the rocks once easily handled in the '50s by an Anthony Mann or Raoul Walsh. But here, Howard muffs it a little; it's slightly scrappier and more incoherent. Yet, whatever the slight flaws, this film is also a showcase for two consummate actors, Blanchett and Jones, giving performances that are among the most indelible of the year. And "The Missing" itself, defying Howard's old "feel-good" reputation as much as "A Beautiful Mind" did, is the best and toughest western since "Unforgiven."

"The Missing"
Directed by Ron Howard; written by Ken Kaufman, based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson; photographed by Salvatore Totino; edited by Dan Hanley, Mike Hill; art direction by Guy Barnes; music by James Horner; produced by Brian Grazer, Daniel Ostroff, Howard. A Columbia Pictures release of a Revolution Studios/Imagine Entertainment production; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: R (For violence).
Samuel Jones.....Tommy Lee Jones
Maggie Gilkeson.....Cate Blanchett
Lilly Gilkeson.....Evan Rachel Wood
Dot Gilkeson.....Jenna Boyd
Brake Baldwin.....Aaron Eckhart
Lt. Jim Ducharme.....Val Kilmer
Emiliano.....Sergio Calderon
Chidin.....Eric Schweig
Kayitah.....Jay Tavare

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