I don’t know that anyone has ever been passionate about a Ron Howard film. Not even Ron Howard. That’s not to say he’s a bad director, just that I have never found anyone that named a Ron Howard film as their favorite. He makes the kinds of movies that everyone sees once and then forgets they ever existed, unless you need to bust out Apollo 13 during a spirited game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. There’s nothing wrong with his movies (A Beautiful Mind notwithstanding), it’s just that they never have the kind of singular view that elevates them into something that will truly be loved. Frost/Nixon comes closest, but it’s such a faithful adaptation of the stage play, it doesn’t feel like Howard’s vision. Even this week’s entry, The Missing, isn’t a film that I love. I like it a great deal. I’ll recommend it as an overlooked gem in Howard’s filmography. But despite featuring a laundry list of things I love – black magic, human trafficking and Cate Blanchett – it’s not one of my favorites.
Traditional westerns relegate Indians to the status of Imperial Stormtroopers in feathers. Revisionist westerns go to the opposite extreme, depicting Native Americans as living in perfect harmony with the environment and we could all learn a thing or two from them. Both views are reductive at best. The truth is that aboriginal Americans were like any other group of people: a couple winners surrounded by a lot of assholes. European settlers and the government of the United States committed the largest act of genocide in history on this ethnic group, which is something that will hang over this country like a guillotine blade. It’s this act that prevents most filmmakers from creating a compelling vision of these people. Pugnacious defiance or crippling guilt rules the day. So there is something to be said for a horror film whose villain is an Apache warlock. It’s a bold choice, but a logical one. I’m scared of Indians, but the fear is mostly karmic in nature.
Cate Blanchett, making her second Now Fear This appearance, plays Maggie Gilkeson, a single mom and frontier doctor trying to raise two girls and operate a small cattle ranch in the New Mexico Territory. Her elder daughter Lilly (played by a pre-skank Evan Rachel Wood) has a life-threatening case of Restless Disney Heroine Syndrome, while younger Dot (Jenna Boyd) is quite content with her life on the ranch. Maggie carries on a secret affair with her hunky ranch hand Brake (Aaron Eckhardt), but refuses to marry him, probably because his name is Brake. Out of the blue, Maggie’s estranged father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) rides out of the forest to reconnect with the family he abandoned when he “went Indian.” Maggie is less than pleased to see her dad, blaming him for running off when she was Dot’s age. She sees to his injuries and quickly sends him packing.
Then shit gets real. Brake, Lilly, Dot and the other ranch hand Emiliano (played by Sergio Calderon, a man blessed and cursed with a wonderful character actor face), go out to brand the herd and don’t come back. The next morning Maggie goes after them and finds a grisly scene. Emiliano’s corpse is naked and riddled with arrows. Brake has been bound up in a cowhide sack and cooked to death. Lilly was kidnapped. Only Dot remains, traumatized for life. Maggie reunites with her father to bring Lilly back home before she can be taken across the Mexican border and sold to a brothel.
The villains of the film are a group of Apaches that were once American soldiers paid to hunt other Apaches, which turned these men into cultural cannibals. Their leader is a brujo, a warlock who has turned his shamanistic powers to black magic. The film neither confirms nor denies the brujo’s magical abilities, letting them exist in a frightening gray area, which is thematically appropriate to the Old West. It was a period in transition when the country was becoming what would become recognizable to a 20th Century inhabitant, when superstition went hand in hand with knowledge. This syncretic blend links both Indians and whites in The Missing. Though Maggie would turn her nose up at Native American religious remedies, she has her daughter read the 23rd Psalm during a dental procedure.
The Missing makes the repeated (and correct) assertion that there is no such thing as purity. Cultural exchange is inevitable whenever two people meet and this transition affects everyone regardless of ethnicity. The Indians in the film are ex-US Army, the white hero observes animist religious ceremonies and even the heroic Chiricahua have a working knowledge of Spanish. No one exists in a “pure” culture. Hell, the very fact that Indians ride horses should be a dead giveaway of that. If someone starts talking about the purity of any one culture or race, they should be bound, gagged and shipped off to the nearest asylum where they won’t be a danger to themselves anymore.
The notion of purity runs far deeper than mere ethnography. The brujo’s power stems from inverting the natural order of things: he hangs rattlesnakes from trees and casually tosses human hearts into the dirt. Right after Lilly’s abduction, Maggie finds a live coyote on the dinner table, which is a pretty clear way of showing that the difference between indoors and outdoors is nearly entirely arbitrary, and is symbolic of the home’s violation (foreshadowing both Lilly’s conception and abduction). Lilly and her fellow captives are being sold into sexual slavery, but their captors are forbidden from sex with them. Just before her abduction, Lilly experiences her first menstrual cramps, signaling that she is no longer a purely innocent child. Most important is the fact that, though it’s never stated explicitly, Lilly is the product of rape.
This makes Maggie and Lilly’s relationship that much more problematic. Lilly is a daily reminder of the horror visited upon Maggie, a horror she still relives in her dreams. She sees in Lilly the weakness in herself. Lilly is also her child, which I believe carries some small form of emotional attachment. Could be wrong there. The point is that the act of rescuing Lilly allows Maggie to come to terms with the fact that whatever Lilly’s origin may be, she’s still a daughter for whom Maggie would be willing to make peace with her deadbeat dad, team up with a couple Chiricahua and even die.
Lilly’s abduction is the beginning of Maggie’s notion of family. It kills the man with whom she has sex but refuses to marry. It prompts her to make peace with her father and daughter. Maggie’s family isn’t the only one involved, either. During their pursuit of the brujo, Maggie’s group runs into Kayitah and his son Honesco, two friends of Sam’s from his time with the Chiricahua. The brujo’s gang kidnapped Honesco’s wife, showing that this group preys on whites and Indians without distinction. Sam’s Indian name, which takes about forty-five minutes to recite, means Shit-For-Luck. He explains to Maggie that, to the Chiricahua, a man without a family has no luck at all. He only returned to Maggie because he was bitten by a snake, and among other prescriptions, the shaman who treated him told him to go be nice to his family. It’s a shame that it was merely an attempt to bribe the spirits that sent him back to his daughter.
The Missing lies at the intersection of western and horror. A good way to spend two hours, with the added bonus of Tommy Lee Jones doing his rapid-talking thing about Native American culture. It’s like attending an anthropology lecture delivered by an auctioneer.