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Magic and healing on the Western frontier


Although a single swallow, as Aristotle reminds us, doesn't make a summer, some viewers may be forgiven for hoping that three Westerns can constitute a trend. The release of Open Range, The Last Samurai (despite its setting in Japan, very much an example of the form), and now, The Missing within the span of a few months, indicates that Hollywood retains at least a modicum of belief in the greatest American genre.

            Although it no longer enjoys its former position as a staple of the industry and a necessary vehicle for virtually every male actor, the Western continues to express some of the basic values of the nation. It has characteristic violence, sets its action in a wilderness both hostile and beautiful, and identifies the characters who will always dominate the American imagination.

            The latest example of the form suggests, within its familiar patterns, some of its rich potential for development in unusual directions. Instead of the cowboy or gunslinger, the protagonist of The Missing is a woman, Maggie Gilkerson (Cate Blanchett), the single mother of two daughters, who runs a ranch and works as a sort of untutored physician, what the other characters call a healer. Although its circumstances lead her into actions as violent as those of any other Western, the story ultimately revolves around healing of all kinds, which makes her profession essential to its meaning.

            Abruptly interrupting her daily life, her father, Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who had abandoned his family many years ago, suddenly appears. Something of an amateur anthropologist, as the movie hints, he spent twenty years living with the Apaches and adopting many of their ways. Although she bears an understandable grudge against him, when a band of renegade Native Americans and white criminals kidnap Maggie's older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), she accepts Jones's offer to help track them and somehow rescue Lily. When she and her younger daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) join Jones on the long and difficult pursuit of the gang, the picture employs one of those revenge quests that animate so many Westerns, notably The Searchers, a journey that ends in a resolution more meaningful than sheer butchery and bloodshed.

            As father, daughter, and granddaughter trail the renegade band, they travel toward some kind of understanding. The family reconfigures itself on the arduous trek, coming to know one another, and Maggie finally discovers within herself the capacity to forgive.

            Their continuing struggle against both the elements and their enemies forces them to work together in some unusual ways, even involving an entirely credible element of the supernatural. Maggie heals the wounded son of her father's Native American friend, but sickens from the malevolent magic of the shaman who leads the renegades. When her father's own magic saves her, she begins to comprehend and accept the differences between them, even to forgive him for the pain he caused her.

            The wicked wizard, Chidin (Eric Schweig), a character of unalloyed evil, represents something unusual in the Western, especially in its rare contemporary manifestations: a truly hateful Indian, a throwback to the some of the implicitly racist themes of the form's past. The picture, however, also provides some noble Indians, several degenerate white thugs, and a troop of cavalry who loot a murdered rancher's house, as if they were the "savages" they regard as their enemy, demonstrating a kind of balance to Chidin and his gang.

            Chidin's supernatural powers, moreover, and his special delight in cruelty --- his men roast one man over a fire, he kills another with claws dipped in rattlesnake venom, and blinds a third with a powder he blows into his eyes --- set him apart from his companions, transforming him into a properly mythic figure, an appropriate antagonist for so heroic a quest.

            Along with its supernatural elements, The Missing paradoxically locates its people within a gritty, authentic time and place, the New Mexico of 1885. The picture opens, for example, with Cate Blanchett, who looks simultaneously both plain and pretty, in the privy --- what other female star would consent to such a shot? --- before she must pull an old woman's last, blackened tooth.

            The opening sequence immediately demonstrates that no matter how romantic or adventurous its history, the Western occupies the difficult and often unlovely territory of a harsh reality. Blanchett's anger and passion work well opposite the sad impassivity of Tommy Lee Jones's rugged countenance, as pitted and rocky as the landscape itself. Both fully inhabit their roles.

            The fine performances intensify the movie's unusual amalgamation of seemingly disparate elements: the myth and magic combined with the ordinary and factual, the shocking violence and inordinate cruelty mixed with love and redemption. The Missing is both a traditional and an unorthodox Western, perhaps just the best sort of Western for this time and place and maybe even the forerunner of others to come.

The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Eric Schweig, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd, Steve Reeves, Ray McKinnon, Val Kilmer, Aaron Eckhart, Simon Baker, Jay Tavare, Sergio Calderon, Clint Howard, Elisabeth Ross; based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson; screenplay by Ken Kaufman; directed by Ron Howard. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

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