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The Missing

The basic story has been told before: girl kidnapped by Indians, chased by her family in hopes of rescue. How many Westerns besides John Ford's classic The Searchers does this describe? What can Ron Howard offer us that's new?

In truth, not much, unless you count a subtle feminist viewpoint, an honesty about both sides of the "cowboys and Indians" thing, and the most powerful and effective performance Tommy Lee Jones has given in years. If that's enough, and it is, The Missing will be right up your alley.

Jones plays Samuel Jones, a man who abandoned his wife and children years before to live among the Native Americans. His reasons are shrouded in mystery, and the eventual revelation proves them to be almost pathetic and definitely, sadly, human.

Seeking a return to his daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett), and perhaps praying for a reconciliation, Jones shows up at the ranch she shares with the good-hearted Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart). The rancher allows Jones simple courtesies, but when it's clear that his lover Maggie wants nothing to do with the old man, Brake stands fast in firmly kicking him off the property.

It could be the father's seeming lack of remorse and preponderance of brutal honesty. One of the ideas running through this film is how we build illusions around ourselves, whether they be of domestic tranquility or the comfort of religious belief. Jones has neither; even the tribes he spent time with look down on him for his inability to stay rooted to family. And he's so trapped within himself that he can't compromise enough to offer kindness to his youngest granddaughter, Dot (Jenna Boyd), a girl uneasily thrilled by the possibility that she's part Indian.

Despite Maggie's refusal to forgive him his absence, she ends up needing him once a band of rogue Apache kidnap her oldest daughter, Lilly (a frighteningly good Evan Rachel Wood). So distant has Jones been from the family that he can't even remember this granddaughter's name when pressed. But for reasons of his own, he agrees to track the kidnappers.

What follows is a harsh look at all sides of 19th Century Western America. Calling the villains rogue Apaches turns out to be too simple a dismissal, though their leader Chidin (Eric Schweig) is pure evil through and through. The official forces of justice, though, have their own complicity in this crime, and screenwriter Ken Kaufman throws in more than one example of bureaucracy trumping right.

Director Howard delivers his purest film effort to date. Previously only sporadically comfortable with letting his images speak for themselves, he has a new confidence in The Missing. Long stretches go without dialogue, and Howard trusts his actors to do their jobs. In a scene of Maggie stopping to make Brake's bed before her pursuit of Lilly, the director allows Blanchett the room to show love and pain in the simple act of smoothing a cover.

But then, this is also the best Howard has ever been with actors. Nobody runs out of control here, not even Schweig in what could have been a temptingly hammy role. Even the obligatory Clint Howard cameo feels right - and more impressively, Clint seems like a normal person here. A couple of other high-profile cameos appear, and after a brief shock of recognition, these seem less like stunts and more like wise casting.

Centering it all is Jones, an actor who has seemed rather bored over the last several years. He has not seemed this vulnerable since his turn as Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song back in the seventies. Though he still occasionally turns on the charm, it's hard to reconcile this guy with the over-the-top Cesar Romero impersonation in Batman Forever and the paycheck collecting he did in such crap as Double Jeopardy. There's pain here. There's a clear inability to fix it. And sometimes, it's clearly too much for the character to bear, but he won't let go. Best of all, the film rarely beats us over the head with it.

Yes, near the end, Howard does give in a little too much to the impulse for schmaltz, but it's brief. The film rights itself soon after. Otherwise, it's a somewhat harsh and spare look at a rough time, with an ending that will leave some people unsatisfied, but is still absolutely the right way to go.

Don't be misled. The Missing is not the feel-good movie for this Thanksgiving weekend. But it is the best of the major releases, with one of the most powerful performances of the year. Sleep off the turkey, then get to a theater to see this.


Derek McCaw

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