In one of the lighter moments in this period thriller, Tommy Lee Jones’s character, a white man who has ‘gone Indian’, is asked what his given Indian name means. He reluctantly explains that a rough translation would be ‘shit for luck’, as the Apache people value family very highly, and he is a man with none.
Jones’s character (also called Jones) is the “missing” of the film’s title, as the reason he has no family is because he chose to desert his wife and daughter twenty years before. The film opens with his return, as he tries to rebuild his relationship with his daughter, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), who now has two children of her own, Lily and Dot (Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd). Maggie refuses to see him, but when Lily is captured by Indians she needs his help, so they set off to rescue her.
Despite its setting in 19th century New Mexico, The Missing is more of a thriller than a western, with director Ron Howard skilfully constructing a number of suspenseful, action-filled set-pieces. Native Americans are central to the plot, but the film has no interest in politics or history, instead using the setting to dramatise a contemporary story about the duties of parenthood. Maggie bitterly resents Jones for leaving her and her mother, and Lily in turn resents Maggie, feeling trapped by her rural upbringing and dreaming of city life.
The bleak, gritty landscapes reflect the complex morality of the characters. Jones offers no apology for leaving his family and remarrying, and expects no forgiveness. The best that can be hoped for is a new accord, as Maggie explains: “What you’re doing you’re doing for your own soul, cause what you’ve done, you can’t undo.”
This focus on the emotional aspects of the story generates some surprisingly powerful scenes. When Maggie sets off to rescue Lily she naturally plans to leave the young Dot behind, but Dot witnessed the abduction of Lily and the murder of two others, and begs her mother not to leave her alone with her thoughts, in a heart-wrenching moment.
The Missing is an entertaining film, but it felt overlong at 130 minutes, and Maggie is so saintly and cold that it’s hard to fully engage with her. The other issue is that the blend of genres doesn’t quite work, as the action sequences seem a little over the top in what is essentially a small human drama. Seeing Dot at yet another gunfight after she’s already witnessed numerous brutal murders, the kidnapping of her sister, and been almost drowned, seems a little bathetic. More concentration on the human side of the story would have made this much more successful.