The modern western is a wasteland. It's as barren and desolate a vista as any that you would find in Monumental Valley. Populated by two lone oasis's of quality (Tombstone, and Open Range) in the past 13 years, the Modern Western is a parade of tumbleweeds, filled with nothing but the half-baked ponderings of overrated auteurs (Dead Man, Hi-Lo Country) and utterly abysmal star vehicles (Wyatt Earp, American Outlaws, Wild Bill). Part of the problem is Unforgiven, which like The Searchers and The Wild Bunch before it, was simultaneously a crowning achievement in and destroyer of the genre. Suddenly the violence wasn't fun anymore, and the white hat vs. black hat cattle opera's that Hollywood spit out looked painfully immature. Hey face it; the Western is simply out of vogue. America's only original art form is seen as irrelevant at best and horrific at worst. It’s true that through hindsight, the giddy gee whiz views on manifest destiny and genocide that many classic westerns have is disturbing. However, I could fill this review with nothing but titles of Western films that break that mold. In the end whatever struck the final blow is unimportant. The point here is that the Western in dead as disco and twice as unfashionable. Me though, I love Westerns. I've got a soft spot a mile wide for them. I’m an unabashed fan. I love the drama, the passion, and long for a day when the western would reappear on the map as a viable and vibrant genre. With The Missing, I now think that day has come.
Alright enough already what's it about? Basically it's about William Munny's daughter. In much the same way that Unforgiven is the spiritual sequel to The Outlaw Josey Welles, The Missing is the spiritual sequel to Unforgiven. Sure the names have been changed but the wounded heart and soul beat beneath the skin. Imagine if you will that the little tow headed daughter in Unforgiven grew up hating her father, never forgiving him for abandoning her. As she grew so did the rift especially after she discovered a religious faith and began to realize how greatly their philosophies differed. Now imagine that she grew up and had two daughters of her own, and then one day William Munny strides in seeking to heal some old wounds and she tells him to shove it, ripping open the scabs and making the cuts deeper. Then suddenly it happens. One of her daughters is taken by a powerful Indian medicine man and she finds herself deeply in need of someone with Munny's particular talents. The names are different William Munny is now Samuel Jones, and he's a tracker not a gunfighter, but in the end that's what it is: A notorious father and a bitter daughter fighting for something bigger than themselves and seeking solace in each other along the way.
Real quickly I want to get the one fly in the ointment out of the way and I have to say its not in a place that I would at all expect it. The problem is Lily, the kidnap victim. You see, when you get right down to the brass tacks she's pretty damn unlikable. What’s worse, she makes an unforgivably dumb decision about 2/3rds through that is really going to make audiences hate her. But why get hung up on this? When you get down to it this film is not about the kidnapped girl. She's a catalyst. She sets things in motion. It’s not her story. If the movie was set around her and her attempts to survive and escape etc. then yes this would be a problem. As it is we have one character who, while important, is ultimately minor. To let her ruin a great film is foolishness.
The Missing is an actor’s movie, and the actor who makes the biggest impact is Tommy Lee Jones. Now I know what you are going to say "Oh boy Tommy Lee Jones chasing somebody that's never been done before." No it hasn't, not in this way at least. Samuel Jones is an insane man, and not in The Hunted's cutely dysfunctional way either. He's deranged, a creature of the earth, an elemental force who has peered so deeply into what lies beneath civilization, that he has no connection or tolerance for the world that normal humans see. He succeeds in doing what Anthony Hopkins failed at in Bram Stokers Dracula, playing someone so unhinged from our world that he seems just as dangerous as what he is hunting. The great part is that he’s so convincing, sometimes you almost feel that Cate Blanchet's Maggie is right about him. He does seem crazy and it’s probably perfectly right for her to keep her kids the hell away from him.
In speaking of Cate Blanchet, wow. Wow oh Wow oh Wow oh Wow. My praise for Blanchet has always been somewhat muted. I enjoyed her in Sam Raimi's The Gift, and found her muted sadness worked beautifully in Lord of the Rings. I've always thought that she was a talented actress but no more so then dozens of others, and when you cut right to it I just couldn't tell what all the fuss was about. Now I know. Her performance is a subtle wonder, expressed by the warmth with her daughters, the way she ever so slightly curbs her strong will when she's out of her element, the uneasy in her body language around her father and his Indian friend (Jay Tavare). Just great stuff. She inhabits the character and isn't afraid to show her genuinely unlikable qualities. While she probably won't get noticed around Oscar time, destined to be lost in a sea of hysterics, she should be.
Eric Schweig is Chidden the medicine man. Dear God, there is no reason for anyone to ever play a super powerful insane Indian mystic ever again, because this guy is IT. If you were walking in the wilderness and met this guy Jesus you'd be lucky if you could bring yourself to roll into a ball and weep as he proceeded to gut you. There is a shot of him standing among some hanging rattlesnakes that is just chilling.
Before you think this movie is all crazy mystics and obsessed mothers, lets talk gunfights. The Missing has gunfights and set pieces among the best in the genre. There are great moments of suspense mixed in with those truly moving pieces of character work. Ron Howard, where the hell did this come from!!! Howard has become dark, mature, exciting, everything I never thought he’d be. Good show Opie, hope there is more where that came from.
I'm over a thousand words into this thing and I haven't even scratched the surface. I haven't talked about what a truly amazing job Jay Tavare does in the role of Kayita or how pleasant it is to be able to say the name Val Kilmer without immediately following it with sucks. Or the utterly haunting cinematography which makes captures all the beauty desolation and danger of the west. But really isn't that the mark of a movie that you truly love? Saying so much and never feeling like its enough.