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Let's go home, Debbie: Jenna Boyd and Cate Blanchett in 'The Missing'
Columbia Pictures

I don't know what's more offensive here: director Ron Howard's idea of a 21st-century Western or the fact that Cate Blanchett can't seem to land a part in a movie worthy of her skills. Is it simply that Paltrow and Kidman have everything blonde and important locked up? (In a parallel universe, Cate lends an androgynous edge to the girl playing the boy in Shakespeare in Love, and fills The Hours' Virginia Woolf with cool deliberation--no need for a prosthesis!) I worry that hanging with the likes of Bruckheimer and Howard will either cull sentimentality from Blanchett's subtlety or deaden that shifting face into a dull mask (shades of Captain Crowe). Bad judgment can be contagious--The Missing being exhibit A.

It's 1885 New Mexico, and Maggie Gilkeson (Blanchett), a ranch-owner, healer, and single mother of two girls, is ordering her prodigal father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones in a long gray wig) off her land. When Maggie was a mere child, Samuel deserted her, along with her mother and brother, to "go Indian"; two early deaths and a premature loss of innocence later, Maggie won't forgive and forget. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army has just hung an Apache chief--a perfidy, the movie self-consciously assures us, that inspires an Apache uprising. A roving band of former Apache army guides and white deserters viciously murders Maggie's hired hands, one of whom (Aaron Eckhart) she was sleeping with. The nasty guys also take Maggie's oldest girl (Evan Rachel Wood) to sell to pimps in Mexico. Maggie retrieves Samuel, and they're off, cute tomboy Dot (Jenna Boyd) in tow.

The Missing is The Searchers with a "politically correct" makeover: The party in pursuit is two-thirds female and one-third Indian wannabe (with an assist from two Apaches); the raiding party is led by an Apache witch (Eric Schwig), and includes bad Apaches and whites; and the bad Apaches are only bad because whites fucked 'em over. (The prospective fallen women include whites and Apaches both.) In a further gesture of respect toward Native Americans, Apache totems trump silver Christian crosses in a face-off against Apache witchery. And an Apache warrior gets to die tragically so a stupid white girl can learn a lesson about bigotry. The new Western indeed!

As for the action: Underneath the pretty costuming and mystical hooey, it's hunt and be hunted, over and over again. I don't know about you, but I've seen enough horses climbing and plunging through Southwestern desertscapes, then turning around and climbing and plunging back, then turning around and climbing and... The Missing purports to concern the healing of a father-daughter rupture; it wants to be the sensitive daddy Western that the long-lost female audience will embrace. Yet its tone is curiously flat. I mean, what's really at stake (besides the horses' knees)? The script hints at the enormous losses of life and land coming to the Apaches, but what's important to Howard is one white family's psychodramas. And despite plucky Cate and clownish Tommy, these characters remain one-dimensional and flavorless.

Howard even places Maggie next to a group of Apache prisoners for a long shot--as if their burdens were somehow equivalent. Samuel's wanderlust is aligned with the nomadic culture of the Apaches--as though their imminent corralling were similarly tragic. In other words, The Missing is just another user--and not even an honest one. For all the mixed-race groupings and sympathetic gestures, the drama still centers on pure white girl skin and the evil dark men who would besmirch it. Should I allow myself to be captivated again by that transparent lie, that old rationalization for brown-skinned people's abduction and murder, because now white girls get to "free" themselves?

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