Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
By Fernando F. Croce

The Missing, Ron Howard's follow-up to his egregiously successful Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind, is in trouble early on. The opening scenes labor to establish the harsh "New Mexico, 1885" where Cate Blanchett toils as a plucky frontier woman, though the period flavor is so patently phony that it looks like a Saturday Night Live sketch. By the time Tommy Lee Jones rides in decked in Apache garb, only a laughtrack could salvage it.

The film is a Western, ostensibly. I take that as a personal affront, because the Western is my favorite genre. To my eyes no other genre has given cinema a more lasting feel for outdoors grandeur, for vividness of period, for a mix of primitive violence and honor. To watch Stagecoach, The Far Country or The Wild Bunch, just to name a few examples, is to plunge into the physical beauties that film can provide. And yet, even more than the musical or the romantic comedy, the Western has dried up in recent years. I doubt the values celebrated by the genre still carry any heft in our current culture, yet cynical Hollywood insists on trying to resuscitate the most innocent of genres -- the results have been grisly. (American Outlaws, anybody?) It's fitting that the only great Westerns of the past two decades, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, are conscious of (and eulogies for) the death of the genre's purity.

The Missing isn't about to break the slump. If anything, it provides a negative lesson on the virtues of the Western, especially since its storyline (based on Thomas Eidson's novel) invites irresistible comparison with John Ford's The Searchers, in my opinion one of the four or five greatest films of all time. Both pictures are journeys after white women who have been abducted by Indians, but where Ford used it to expose the darkness in the heart of the frontier hero, Howard turns it into typical, end-of-year churned butter. The plot follows medicine woman Blanchett and her estranged father Jones, who years before had left his family to take up with the Apache, as they track down the Indians who've kidnapped her teen daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). And of course, Blanchett's other daughter (Jenna Boyd) tags along just so she can get in trouble. Of course, there will be a duel between the whites' Bible-reading versus the Indians' black magic. Of course, the bitter Blanchett will forgive Jones and family with redeem all. Of course, of course.

Though The Missing is full of unpleasant images (of teeth pulled with pliers, of graphic scalpings and the gloating threat of rape), it is pusillanimous of true horror. The villain, a hulking, snaggle-toothed Indian witch doctor, lip always snarlingly curled, is just a dark-skinned boogeyman to be vanquished by the father's redemptive sacrifice. Compare the two to the unsettling complexities of John Wayne's Ethan Edwards and Chief Scar in The Searchers and see how puny and chicken-hearted the movie's conceptions are. Blanchett, fresh from her triumph in Veronica Guerin, tries hard but flounders. She's the rare actress who, like Julianne Moore, is gifted with sexy intelligence -- I want to see her playing brisk, flouncy and horny, not channeling Irene Dunne in Cimarron. Jones injects bits of mulish humor here and there, but it is a leathery, intransigent role that he must be by now as weary of playing as I am of watching. Wood, the extraordinary young actress of Thirteen, is (literally) tied down here. As for Val Kilmer's cameo as a cavalry officer... well, have you ever heard an entire audience go "Whaaaaaaaat?" in unison?

The actors are weighted down by Howard's direction, which is ponderous when not hysterical (all those crane shots!) and clumsy (it's snowy! no, it's sunny! wait, it's snowy again!). Dealing with a genre pregnant with so much potential for beauty, he displays a very dull eye, consciously "beautiful" vistas and fancy framing slapped together with none of the steely elegance that, say, Anthony Mann could bring to a single shot of a cliff. Really, what can one say of a director whose one distinctive trait is the casting of his little brother in all his pictures? Ron Howard's films, from Cocoon and Parenthood to Apollo 13 and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, have always been mild, tasteful enterprises shilling a wholesomeness that, if examined instead of swallowed whole, reveals a wide, reactionary streak. Here's a film that, for all the lip service to strong-willed women and the plight of Native-Americans, climaxes with an odious re-enshrining of patriarchy as well as the suggestion that different races are better kept apart.

In that sense, The Missing is perfect holiday fodder for Academy Award gazers and "grown-up" tastemakers, who ignore better pictures while marveling at the Hail-Brittania heroics of Master and Commander and the specious racial examination of The Last Samurai. Someone who's never seen a Western might wonder why the genre lasted for so long after suffering through Howard's clueless oater. For the answer, go rent Red River or Run of the Arrow instead.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on December 3, 2003.

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