When her eldest daughter is kidnapped, frontier doctor Maggie has to seek help from her estranged father Sam, who once abandoned his family to live with the Chiricahua. Together they track an Apache warlock who sells captured girls into prostitution, and attempt a rescue.
Coming off his worst film by far (The Grinch) and an Oscar sweep he didn't deserve (A Beautiful Mind), Ron Howard delivers his best picture to date.
Many current Westerns (Cold Mountain, anyone?) are Oscar-bid Serious Historical Pictures that would rather kiss a skunk than be labelled horse operas. The Missing - like Kevin Costner's upcoming Open Range - wins points because it's an unashamed saddle-saga that proves character depth needn't be sacrificed even in a movie full of suspense, gunplay and breathtaking scenery.
Taken from Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, the story is a knowing variant on The Searchers, overlaid with the gutsiness and complex sense of racial-sexual-familial divides found in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove novels.
With The Missing and Open Range, Hollywood has at last found worthy big-screen cowboy roles for the stars of TV's Lonesome Dove - Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall - both of whom are still more than up to the demands of the trail, and all the better for being set beside leading ladies who give voice to the too-often-overlooked Women Of The West.
In the long first act, Blanchett's Maggie is a hard-bitten take on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman - a rancher with two daughters by different fathers, a top hand (Eckhart) she occasionally beds but refuses to marry, and a sideline as a 'healer' who pulls teeth and sets bones. Her long-absent father, Sam (Jones), whom she blames for her mother's death and her own hard life, rides into view, taking the advice of a medicine man who prescribes family reconciliation (along with not eating rabbit and saying his prayers) as a cure for snakebite.
The reunion doesn't go well, but a raiding party strikes: Maggie finds corpses hanging over an Ulzana's Raid-style torture fire while her younger daughter, Dot (Boyd, of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star), talks of the abduction of big sister Lilly (Wood, of Thirteen). Both the civil authorities (sheriff Clint Howard) and the cavalry (lieutenant Val Kilmer, presiding over looting and abuse of captured Indians) prove useless.
In fact, they have contributed to the trouble by hanging an honourable Apache chief, leaving a power vacuum filled by one of the nastiest villains in recent screen memory: Apache 'brujo' Chidin (Schweig). Thus, the daughter must swallow her pride and ask the father to lend his tracking skills to the pursuit-and-rescue mission, which leads to a trek from snowy woods to rocky deserts, then up into the mountains for a terrific siege finale that takes place after the apparent climax.
In a typical 2004-Hollywood set of character arcs, it's all about a sundered family who come together during an ordeal: Maggie forgiving and learning to respect her father, Sam acknowledging that he has done a great wrong to his daughter, Lilly changing from a superficial chit to a Western heroine. Unusually for a post-Sacheen Littlefeather Western, the baddest of the baddies is a Dishonest Injun.
Freddy Krueger lookalike Eric Schweig is terrifically rotten as Chidin, filling Lilly's mouth with sand ('That's what the rest of your life will taste like') and taking the film into whole new territory by using genuine supernatural powers against his pursuers. However, all the other Indians in the film are heroic, humorous and dignified, so it dodges the racism bullet. After decades of noble suffering, it's refreshing to see a film which admits the West had at least one bad Indian.
It has a little for fans of all kind of movies: embattled but empowered womenfolk, crusty old gunslingers, a horror film villain, panoramic landscapes, horses, fractured family values, historical nuggets, massacres, rescue attempts, shoot-outs and honest-to-John-Wayne cowboy heroics. However, ultimately, it proves neither compelling nor resonant.
Reviewed by Kim Newman