The western is dead, long live the western. No longer a meaningful staple in our culture, this most iconic and supremely Kantian genre persists in the ambitions of Hollywood, like a childhood ecstasy replayed endlessly by a neurotic adult. Every year a few get coughed out, demonstrating—with the singular exception of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood having staked a personal and genuine claim on the category’s relevance—that once Sam Peckinpah nailed that casket shut, there remained little reason to open it again. The season’s hard-boiled retro-anti-oater, Ron Howard’s The Missing is an exercise in fanboy humility. Over the last two decades, Howard has proven himself to be one of Beverly Hills’ most tactless manipulators, but here he all but eschews his populist reflexes and struggles toward a relatively astringent maturity, visiting the relativism of Eastwood territory and echoing the cynical battery of Robert Aldrich’s overlooked-but-not-forgotten Ulzana’s Raid (1972).
The struggle shows; The Missing‘s visual vocabulary is more or less limited to stormy skies, power dollies, and angsty close-ups. You can practically hear Howard’s reptile brain urging him to telegraph, emphasize, and simplify, but for the most part the call is resisted. Ken Kaufman’s script, from a novel by neo-L’Amour Thomas Eidson, emerges from its studio development with a surprising thorniness, and Howard lets the nasty frontier semi-realism settle like grime in wrinkles. Eidson’s story reaches back to John Ford’s The Searchers (not a shabby reference point, and one thankfully never belabored): A ranch girl is kidnapped by Indians, and family members ride into the whirlwind to get her back. Ford’s trump card was the search’s years-long duration, which took on an epic, perverting life of its own. The Missing emphasizes instead the fate of the teen kidnapee (Evan Rachel Wood) being shepherded to Mexico. “Apaches sell a lot of girls down there,” Tommy Lee Jones’s prodigal-gone-native Granddad dryly says, as he volunteers to help the grown daughter that hates him (Cate Blanchett) track the slave train and buy the girl back.
Jones’s leathery nature-boy bit is as old-growth as the burnt pine forest where Blanchett’s single mom first encounters the abductors’ carnage, but his alter ego, a malignant brujo played by Eric Schweig, more than freshens up the dynamic. Bloated, dead-eyed, toothsome, and as shaggy as a Sasquatch, Schweig’s serial slaughterer/slave marketer is a piece of pulp inspiration—virtually a Spider-Man villain—and scary enough without the hoodoo fever-spell he casts over Blanchett in mid-pursuit, the narrative’s only large lapse in conviction.
There’s a tough and potent notion buried in here that the Native American antagonists are all demonizable because they’re all ex-employees of the U.S. Army—and thus degenerated by the contact. However bogged down by predictable story rhythms, banally assembled shoot-outs, and climactic mano a mano, The Missing has an acidic period tone, a respect for the reality of violence, and a refreshing dearth of superhuman heroics and easy triumph. For that much, we should be grateful.
Or gratitude could shuttle downtown to Film Forum for a reacquaintance with Sergio Leone’s landmark “Man With No Name” trilogy, three unrelated movies connected at the diaphragm by budding star Clint Eastwood and the explosive taste of monster-cheese matinee hyperbole. The spaghetti western was one of the last sensational firework nova-blooms of the dying genre, and Leone’s international hits—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo; For a Few Dollars More (1965), a bounty-hunter pas de deux between Clint and well-oiled viper Lee Van Cleef; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), the massive, overripe Nibelungenlied of western totems—remain required viewing. Of all varietals of ‘Nam-era psychotronia, these movies date the least, but ironically, after their high-octane Italianization, Westerns would never recover their gravity. Not long thereafter, cowboys and Indians didn’t even parse as a child’s game anymore. What had been tall historical adventure tales became, finally, myth.