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Indian Giver 

The Missing misses plenty, except ancient prejudices

In director Ron Howard's The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones' Samuel Jones takes his place among the oldest archetypes in the Western genre -- the white man who has lived among the Indians till he has at last become one himself. This plot device, used in Hombre, Nevada Smith and myriad other movies, renders Samuel what the late Pauline Kael once referred to as "the double loner -- an ideally alienated, masochistic modern hero [whose] sympathies are with the Indians, though he generally comes through and acts for the whites." Kael was not being complimentary; quite the opposite. She was out to damn the "liberal movie-maker" for patting himself on the back by insisting his was a Western that gave sympathetic treatment to the Indian, usually by making him a white man who traded his boots for moccasins.

Kael wrote her essay "Saddle Sore" in 1967 -- in other words, well before Dances With Wolves -- and years later things haven't changed. Howard, in the press notes, reiterates Kael's sentiments by explaining that Samuel Jones is "a man who straddles two worlds but is never completely accepted by either one of them." He's initially mistaken for "some kind of Apache son of a bitch" (by a Mexican worker on a white family's ranch), almost killed by white soldiers who believe him Indian, then brutalized by Indians who would seek to eradicate the white man within. Samuel's damned if he is, damned 'cause he ain't.

The Missing, based on Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride and adapted for the screen by the man who wrote Muppets From Space, may strike film students as a retelling of John Ford's The Searchers, in which John Wayne spends years tracking down a niece kidnapped by Indians. There are similarities: This time it is Jones who must rescue a granddaughter (played by thirteen's Evan Rachel Wood) taken by Indians before she is sold into slavery in Mexico and lost forever. Like The Searchers, The Missing is based on a novel; also like The Searchers, the rugged scenery intimidates and impresses.

But Opie, it goes without saying, is no John Ford. His movie is as much about the reconciliation between an estranged daughter (Maggie, another tough-as-bullets role in the arsenal of Cate Blanchett) and her father as it is about the search for a girl taken by Indians. Howard's is a new-age, witchy-woman Western in which Blanchett's medical "healer" provides a curative of a different, touchy-feely sort -- the repairing of a rift between a daughter and the man who left her years ago to get in touch with his Injun side. But it may leave you with this terribly icky feeling that what you're watching is no more enlightened than the Westerns of the '40s and '50s, in which men with red faces possessed black hearts and were, among other things, savages and predators and sexual deviants and practitioners of voodoo witchcraft.

Ford could just as easily be damned for his callous depictions of Indians as he could have been celebrated for being enlightened. The Searchers, in which Wayne wants to find his niece only to kill her for becoming Indian, might have been intended to appall audiences or reassure them; watching it now it's often hard to tell which, because audiences in the 1950s were supposed to (and certainly did) root for Wayne, no matter how appalling his sentiments. Howard, selling archaic racism beneath the guise of popcorn enlightenment, doesn't seem to care if we're offended, as long as we leave the theater entertained and feeling all mushy about how much everybody loves everybody else. 'Cept the Injuns.

In The Missing, the Indians aren't just bad guys but, in the case of magic man Chidin (Eric Schweig), comic-book supervillains possessing grotesquely scarred faces and the power to cause a man's eyes to bleed and to push a woman toward the brink of death from miles away. In one scene, Chidin and his men, mostly Apaches who once worked alongside the U.S. Army, leave the head of Aaron Eckhart, as Blanchett's beloved, smoking over an open flame in the woods. (Speaking of Thanksgiving turkey....)

When The Missing isn't offending, it's dragging and rehashing. One more time, Jones plays a man hunting the disappeared, and one more time, Ransom director Howard tells a kidnapping campfire story in which a parent will do anything to retrieve a child. And like Kevin Costner's Open Range, it's another overlong and pretentious Western that takes forever to get to its gunfight showdown; what that film and The Missing share is the ability to take two hours to tell a story that has become an aside in most postmodern Westerns, chief among them Silverado, in which the retrieval of a stolen child is but a tiny chapter in a sprawling story.

The only thing The Missing isn't missing is a handful of climaxes, all of them of the anti- variety that leave you believing, then praying, that the movie's over -- a good 30 minutes before its actual and inevitable finale. Its search-and-rescue plot depends on numerous screw-ups; occasionally the movie even plays like unintended comedy -- Blazing Saddles with a wet blanket thrown over it. Saddle sore, indeed.

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