The Missing

Starring: Cate Blanchette, Tommy Lee Jones, Eric Schweig

Director: Ron Howard 
Released: 2003

Mood: If your brain is mush and you want to watch a Western that won’t make you think too much but you’re not in the mood for a comedy and want something that’s dark but not so dark it will mess with your sleep. 

I’ve been having A WEEK. Or is it a month? The days are all one grey, blurry blob that’s somehow both chaotic and dull, overwhelming and empty. Staying inside the majority of the time does strange things to your mind. Because it’s so uneventful, insignificant things become GIANT F*CKING EVENTS. New graphic novel arrives? Best day ever! Forget to take the recycling out in time? Life is collapsing!

I desperately needed a solid Western to cheer me up. 

The Missing didn’t make me feel ‘happy’ – it’s not a cheerful movie. But I trusted in the powers of Cate Blanchette, Eric Schweig, and Tommy Lee Jones to take me to that special place where I believe I could ride for days through deserted fields and camp under the stars and live off berries and turkey pepperoni sticks.  

Like my brain lately, The Missing is dark, and weird, and different. It gave me the boost I needed to face waking up and doing everything the same again tomorrow. 

The Missing DVD

The Missing opens in that familiar Old West era of the late 1800s. Magdalena Gilkeson (Cate Blanchette) is an independent, no-bullshit rancher and healer, raising her daughters Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd). 

A man named Brake (Aaron Eckhart) arrives at their ranch with two other rough-looking men. One of them is an ‘Indian’ who goes by Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan – but in reality he’s Maggie’s estranged father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned the family to live with the Chiricahua tribe. He’s hoping to repair their relationship, but Maggie still hates him. 

Then Maggie makes the headstrong teenaged Lilly go with Dot and Brake to do ranch business, despite her bitchy protests – but they don’t return. A terrifying Apache called Chidin (Eric Schweig) and his mixed posse of renegade Apaches and redneck white dudes have been out slaughtering families and capturing women of all ages, to sell into prostitution in Mexico. 

Maggie learns that Chidin killed Brake and kidnapped Lilly. Now Maggie’s forced to turn to her father for help in tracking down her daughter. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

People were super mixed about The Missing. 

Different sources indicate that it didn’t recoup its budget. It’s got a 6.5/10 on IMDB, a ‘meh’ score of 55/100 on Metacritic, and a 58% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Ebert gave it 2/4 stars and tore into the plot, saying, “I couldn’t believe any part of this movie”. Other reviewers complained that it shouldn’t have had a ‘fantasy’ element (the rituals and powders of Chidin). 

They can all suck it. Here’s why:

  • Every Western ever asks you to suspend belief in multiple ways, including historical facts about people and places, horsemanship, firearms and their use, clothing and accessories, human rights and customs, and race relations 
  • It’s not implausible that a woman would do everything possible to save her child, and frontier women were generally tough, hardy folk who were comfortable with horses and guns
  • Native rituals and spiritualism don’t equate to fantasy; shamans, medicine men/women, and other assorted practitioners were and still are a part of many cultures around the world; Chidin didn’t cast spells, he blew harmful plant-based (and often hallucinogenic) powders into people’s eyes 
  • Regarding Ebert’s claims that in order to be plausible Maggie would have let her paramour sleep over AND the kidnapped women would have been molested by their captors – a woman CAN enjoy sex with a man but not let him spend the f*cking night because she’s a busy mom and it’s a one-room house! And potential sex slaves would need to be as clean and attractive (aka virginal-looking) as possible, so obviously Chidin would forbid his posse from reducing their value

Of course there are plot holes and obvious setups, like in any movie

A woman, her youngest daughter, and her aging father are tracking and fighting an experienced group of Natives. But no one said Chidin’s Apaches and white guys were the cream of the crop. And old Samuel left his family when Maggie was a child to live among Natives and learn their ways – of course by now he’d be really f*cking good at thinking like them, tracking them, and understanding their rituals. DUH. 

illustration of a fancy moustache
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Cate Blanchette is thoroughly convincing as a tough, jaded Western woman. She effortlessly balances a hardened tenacity with vulnerability and fear when it comes to her children. She gives you a small but meaningful character growth that’s just right for the story.

Eric Schweig is EVERYTHING in this movie. From his scary prosthetics and makeup to his primal movements and mannerisms, he delivers a totally unique Native American character and performance in a Western that’s so ugly on every level, you can’t look away. 

Schweig, Tommy Lee Jones, and several other actors learned to speak in the Chiricahua Apache dialect for their roles, from some of the last remaining fluent speakers. 

Evan Rachel Wood is great as Lilly. You have to hate her, because she’s super racist and her ideas about Natives get a good man killed. But she does it so well, you can see why she quickly rose to critical acclaim.

Jay Tavare is also notably awesome as Kayitah, a Chiricahua man who knows Samuel and joins them to try and save his future daughter-in-law. Tavare radiates this fierce bravery that makes him the most impactful character in his scenes. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The Missing also delivers a bunch of those “hey, it’s that guy!” moments that I love in Westerns.

Val Kilmer appears in one scene as a lazy, douchey lieutenant. Ray McKinnon (Deadwood) also briefly appears as a doomed captive photographer. 

  • Fun fact: Jones, Schweig, Kilmer, McKinnon, and David Midthunder (who plays an Apache Scout) all appeared in the Lonesome Dove series – Jones was in Lonesome Dove, Schweig and McKinnon were in Dead Man’s Walk, and Midthunder and Kilmer were in Comanche Moon

Among Chidin’s posse I also spotted Max Perlich, who had a small role as a gunfighter in Maverick. And it’s a Ron Howard film, so of course his brother Clint makes an appearance.

The Missing is a good f*cking movie. It messes with your emotions. You feel hope, then anger, then like everything is awful, then back to hope – and the cycle keeps repeating. But that’s exactly how life was for everyone back then. 

You get shootouts, fist fights, horse chases, AND dark spiritual practices. It’s a welcome change of pace when everything feels way too same-same.