John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers imperfectly but provocatively illuminated a previously unexplored dark side in classic Western iconography, offering a challenging picture of a traditional John Wayne hero who was also bitterly anti-Indian and brutal enough to spend the film pursuing the honor killing of his niece, now “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck.”
Ron Howard’s 2003 film The Missing, despite strong thematic similarities to Ford’s film, has nothing challenging or illuminating to offer, no questions to raise about contemporary assumptions, no new insights for modern audiences. In fact, where Ford’s film challenged assumptions and attitudes still current in 1956, Howard’s film largely embraces, if not panders to, politically correct current attitudes regarding gender roles, racism, and a number of other subjects.
In place of Ford’s iconic but Indian-hating cowboy hero, Howard gives us two white protagonists who are each, in their own ways, the antitheses of the John Wayne character.
One is an Indian-wannabe tracker named Samuel (Tommmy Lee Jones) who left his white family to live with the Indians, and now dresses like an Apache and practices native spirituality. The other is an independent white medicine woman named Maggie (Cate Blanchett) who’s liberated enough to share her bed with a cowboy beau without allowing him to marry her (this despite repeatedly being declared to be a “good Christian” woman), tough enough to ride shotgun with the tracker all the way to the Mexican border in order to recover her kidnapped daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and white/Christian enough (read: “prejudiced”) to say things like “You never know what diseases these Indians have.”
Along for the ride are the kidnapped girl’s spunky younger sister
Dot (Jenna Boyd) and some helpful Native American allies. Against them
are the bad guys, consisting of Indian and white Army deserters, one of
whom is a nasty brujo or
Notice that the bad Indians are tainted with European-ness by being cast as Army collaborator-deserters, while the good Indians are free of European entanglements. Notice, too, that the comparatively enlightened white man is all Dances With Wolves, while the comparatively benighted woman is a hypocritical, ignorant Christian — though she’s also a gun-totin’ frontier mama capable of riding and fighting alongside Samuel, not to mention a single woman with a career — and she’s in charge of her love life, too.
Then there’s the movie’s spiritual overtones, which invoke both Christianity and Native American spirituality and voodoo-like magic. As soon as Samuel realizes that there’s a brujo among their enemies, he wants Maggie and Dot to wear protective talismans. Despite his warnings about the paranormal things he’s witnessed such witches accomplish, Maggie refuses, being a good Christian woman, though she does allow Dot to wear one.
As it happens, Maggie’s the one who seems to get hit by the brujo when she leaves behind a hairbrush and he gets ahold of a hank of her hair. As she lies frail and feverish, Samuel desperately musters what little protective mojo he can to try to defend her, at the same time syncretistically urging Dot to read from the Bible. Oddly, the passage Dot chooses is the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 (even though earlier, when reading the Bible for the benefit of a sick woman, she read from a more obviously appropriate source, Psalm 23).
In the end, Maggie recovers, and the movie doesn’t officially declare whether it was Samuel’s Indian mojo, Dot’s reading, or the combination of the two that did the trick — or even whether it was really the brujo’s magic, and not bad drink, that made Maggie ill in the first place. Still, it’s the brujo who comes off as having really powerful spiritual connections; we have Samuel’s eyewitness accounts of brujo magic, and nothing that says Christians have any power or pull in spiritual matters.
Even on a storytelling level, despite decent writing, solid acting, and fine production values, this is no Open Range. It’s bleak and joyless. The heroes suffer so many setbacks and losses, and their predicament is so grim and hopeless for so long, that the film could only be redeemed by some kind of challenging moral implication (cf. The Searchers) or by an especially redemptive, uplifting third act.
But there’s nothing like either of those two things here. The Missing is neither cathartic nor escapist, neither persuasive nor inspiring. It’s just a gritty, exhausting tale of perseverance and survival that takes too long to get to the end without enough of a reason to get there.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.