The tired old Western receives a shot of adrenalin this month as Ron Howard’s The Missing (2004) attempts to reinvigorate the genre. Having been brutalised into submission by the likes of Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, the Western of late has made intermittent appearances at the cinema, with biographical epics such as Tombstone , Wyatt Earp , modern westerns such as Unforgiven (1991), or evn subgenre comedy vehicles (Maverick (1994) and Shanghai Noon (2000)). It is to Ron Howard then that we owe a debt of gratitude. The Missing is not epic, revisionist or definitive in any way; it is a very cautious and modest return to form for the Western, a film acutely aware that if the genre is to be resuscitated it must be done with gentle pressure.
Like High Noon (1952) before it, The Missing’s story is a minimalist and thread-bare affair. The wonderful Cate Blanchett stars as Maggie, a single mother trying to raise her two daughters in the barren landscapes of 1880s New Mexico. After a great absence Maggie’s father (Jones) returns home in an attempt to reconcile his relationship with her and restore the family. However when her eldest daughter is snatched by a ruthless ‘witch man’ and his posse, Maggie must ask her Injun father to lead the way in a desperate search for Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), before she is sold across the border.
Despite the film relying on this element of chase – a classic race-against-the-clock scenario – it is never flashy or urgent in a theatrical way. The pace is deliberate and restrained, the film’s editor Dan Hanley careful to show the true grit of the time and not gloss over the realities of frontier living. The Missing opens with Maggie in an outside toilet using rough parchment as paper and throughout never shies away from the grime and viscera of the West. When director Howard is not thrusting his camera into the mouth of a woman having her last tooth ripped out, he’s showing us what a cowboy looks like stuffed double into the carcass of a cow. Just as it sounds the violence is brutal and realistically staged yet, unlike Howard’s Ransom (1996), never gratuitous.
Salvatore Totino, whose credits also include Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999), succeeds here in giving New Mexico a surreal, unworldly appearance. Similar to Leone’s Dollars trilogy The Missing’s setting feels like nowhere: from the snow and dripping icicles to the salt flats and lunar-esque plateaus Howard’s old West is an alien place indeed. Coupled with the film’s interest in Injun mysticism and their arcane practices this makes for quite a genre-bending experience (the film’s trailer suggested a rural, gothic horror) and a thoroughly modern Western.
If Costner’s Open Range (2004), also out this month, draws its water from the same well then we may be witnessing the start of a renaissance for the Western, the first and best form of American cinema.