The shadow of John Ford’s “The Searchers” hangs heavy over Ron Howard’s “The Missing,” a grimly monochromatic version of a similar tale about the effort to track down a white frontier girl who’s been kidnapped by Indians. There’s even a visual allusion toward the beginning, when a shot focusing on a closing door recalls the famous conclusion of Ford’s film; but as befits the new film’s mirror-image reflection of the earlier one, in this case the image is designed to emphasize the reunion of the family by enclosing us in the interior of the cabin, while Ford’s use of it pointed to the continuing separation of the John Wayne character, alone outside, from the family bond.
But “The Missing” alters the “Searchers” template in other ways, too. The outsider is no longer an Indian-hater, but a white man who has lived with the native Americans for decades and adopted their mode of life. And when he goes off to try to rescue his grand-daughter, the party isn’t a purely masculine one–he’s accompanied not only by his estranged daughter, the girl’s mother, but also by his younger grand-daughter. This is, in many respects, a P.C. expedition, composed of an admirer of Indian culture and two females. And the Indians who have kidnapped the girl (along with others, whom they plan to sell across the Mexican border) aren’t simple savages, noble or otherwise; they’ve been corrupted by service with the U.S. cavalry. (They’re also accompanied by some sleazy renegade white men.) The leader of the gang, moreover, is portrayed as a gruesome shaman with powerful forces of evil at his disposal–a sort of horror movie figure, whose resiliency makes him a virtual nineteenth-century equivalent of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. And to balance things out, a couple of heroic “good” Indians are added to the mix, to serve as allies in the family’s pursuit of the kidnappers.
But for all this, “The Missing” is still little more than a gloomy, one-note chase movie. It boasts impressive locations–from the snow-covered regions around the homestead to the dusty desert areas near the Mexican border–and fine cinematography by Salvatore Totino (though some of the hand-held camera work is intrusive). It also has an impressive cast. Cate Blanchett brings grit and intensity to the part of Maggie Gilkeson, the frontier woman determined to find her daughter, and Tommy Lee Jones has the weatherbeaten look and strong, stoic persona of her long-absent father down pat. On the other side of the equation, Eric Schweig makes an imposingly nasty bit of business as Chidin, the powerful shaman. But while Jenna Boyd is an appealing tomboy presence as Maggie’s younger daughter Dot, Evan Rachel Wood, who was so impressive recently in “Thirteen,” is rather anonymous as the kidnapped Lilly. (It never helps to have to play much of your role tied up and gagged.) Aaron Eckhart is even more pallid as Maggie’s admirer Brake, who meets a horrible fate early on. But Jay Tavare and Simon Baker strike the proper noble attitudes as the courageous Kayitah and his son Honesco, whose betrothed has also been stolen by the bandits. And it’s heartwarming to see that Howard continues his fraternal welfare program by continuing to bestow small parts on his brother Clint, who here plays the nebbishy local sheriff.
In the final analysis, “The Missing” is a film made with intelligence and care but fatally lacking in depth, subtlety and emotional richness. The family-centered message the narrative conveys is simply too thin to bear the weight that Howard’s somber, deliberate approach tries to invest it with; unlike Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” for instance, it never resonates. “The Searchers” may be old-fashioned and filled with Fordian machismo (and the getup Natalie Wood is wearing when she’s found is risible nowadays), but it continues to carry a wallop that this new picture, for all its craftsmanship, doesn’t even begin to match.