Review: The Missing (2003)

Release Date: 2003

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Evan Rachel Wood

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338188/

The overall plot of The Missing is fairly simple and typical of a lot of Westerns and action adventure movies. A missing girl kidnapped by hostile Indians.  In this case it’s a gang of Apaches led by a brujo or witch that are raiding American homesteads and taking the young girls to sell into slavery in Mexico.  What makes the movie really work is the characters, and their relationships.  In particular the strained father/daughter relationship between Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) and Maggie (Cate Blanchett).  Samuel abandoned Maggie and her mother while she was young, and shows up decades later while in search of a healer.  Despite the years Maggie still bears a grudge toward her father, and his sudden arrival stirs up old emotions. The fact that Maggie ends up relying upon her dead beat dad to help her father to help track down her daughter after she goes missing only adds salt to the wounds.  Thankfully, the issues between these two are never fully resolved over the course of the plot, but they also do not hinder the action driven nature of the story.  It’s a delicate balancing act to do so and I think the movie does it well enough.

The other thing that I liked about The Missing is that the female characters aren’t one dimensional damsels in distress.  Maggie proves herself through the story to not only be strong mentally but quite capable when bullets start flying.  Even her younger daughter Dot proves to be a strong willed little girl in the face of adversity.  Yet the writers never forget that these characters are human and not cartoons which is conveyed very well in an emotional exchange between Dot and her sister Lilly near the climax of the plot.  Its refreshing to see a movie where the women are represented realistically and aren’t stuck with the ‘bitch’ label, either.  In fact Maggie in a lot of ways represents a realistic representation of your typical frontier woman.  Women who not only help build the homestead but helped defend it.

The Missing isn’t simply a character study, there’s enough action in it and suspense.  The shooutouts/raids were done in a realistic manner that managed to keep the suspense level elevated.  In a lot of ways the action scenes are about as close as a real shootout with Sharps reapters and Henry rifles would’ve been back in the 19th century.

Unlike a lot of Westerns, The Missing incorporates some Apache mysticism into the plot, including a scene where Maggie falls under the curse of the brujo and another scene where Samuel communes with a hawk.  This adds a certain element that borders on fantasy in some ways when compared to the rest of the plot.  What makes it work is that the whole idea of the brujo and his powers is established early on in the film. I rather enjoyed this addition to what could’ve been a standard Western. The writers didn’t get too heavy handed with the mysticism which could’ve bogged it down and perhaps  made it absurd.

The way the movie handles its portrayal of The Apache is fairly realistic.  They’re not all ruthless savages, nor are they white men parading as natives.  They’re portrayed as being complex and having their own motivations, just like any other race/ethinic group.

The locales used in the movie are nothing short of breath taking and the fact that I’ve actually been to some areas where it was filmed made it even better for me.  Being a fan of the American Southwest, it was great to see a movie set in New Mexico actually filmed in New Mexico rather then some other state or country as is often the case.

I’d recommend The Missing to anyone who’s a fan of Western films or anyone who enjoys intelligent action/adventure movies. It has strong characters and a solid plot.  There are characters to care about and to despise.  And what more do you really need?

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