The Missing

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The Missing

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In John Ford's classic Western The Searchers, John Wayne stars as a Confederate veteran who ruthlessly hunts down the Comanche tribe that abducted his niece, setting off on an obsessive vendetta that lasts five years. Given Wayne's heroic image, the film gets its queasy edge by casting him as a character consumed with racial hatred, until finally his own twisted pathology overwhelms any claims to justice. It might be too much to expect such provocative racial politics in a contemporary Western (though Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro pulled it off in 1976's Taxi Driver), but Ron Howard's The Missing doesn't neutralize them so much as neuter them. A director distinguished by his professionalism, Howard follows The Searchers closely enough that the comparisons are unavoidable, but he lacks the courage to follow through in the same way. Instead, he converts Ford's dark journey of the soul into a mushy tale of paternal redemption and self-sacrifice, quickly ballasting the slave-trading Apaches with a few blandly heroic ones and tossing everyone's beliefs into a grab bag of one-world spirituality. Adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, the story takes place on arid, unforgiving prairie land in 1885 New Mexico, where white settlers maintain a truce of sorts with the neighboring Native Americans. Operating as the local healer on a farm with her two daughters and a pair of hired hands, Cate Blanchett receives an unexpected visit from her long-absent father Tommy Lee Jones, who abandoned their family 30 years earlier to live with an Apache squaw. Initially unwelcome in Blanchett's home, Jones gets a chance to redeem himself when her eldest daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by a powerful Apache witch and his partners, who intend to sell the girl and other young female captives at the Mexican border. Much like Howard's hackneyed 1996 thriller Ransom, The Missing sports a by-the-numbers child-abduction plot, which lets a flawed man readjust his priorities and bring himself closer to the family. Born to play a Western hero, Jones sells the film's syrupy message with a soulful, wounded performance, relieved at times by his agreeably cantankerous sense of humor. But even in his darkest moments, he's not John Wayne in The Searchers–or even John Wayne in Hatari!, for that matter–because Howard doesn't want to risk offending anybody. In the most ludicrous sequence, "good Christian woman" Blanchett and an Indian mystic try to heal a bullet wound as the Apache witch works his dark magic to aggravate it in a voodoo-like ritual. As one camp gathers ghost bush and recites Bible passages, and the other kicks up flames and extracts rattlesnake venom, the furious montage develops like a spiritual cage-match: good versus evil, may the godliest win. In The Missing, this sort of fuzziness and compromise proves infectious.

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