The Missing, Ron Howard's latest movie, drawn from Richard Eidson's little-known and almost unreadable pulp novel The Last Ride, is a gritty, brutal, often unpleasant portrait of a family crisis in 1885 New Mexico, in what Howard describes as "warped and strange and tragic" times.
Blanchett plays Maggie, a single mother of two daughters, trying to keep her family together when her estranged father Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up on her stoop one day, followed by a band of white and Indian outlaws led by Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig, fully invested in the role), a maniacal Apache who follows, in Howard's words, "his own psychotic nature." The men kidnap girls for sex slavery. Maggie's oldest daughter, the rebellious Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood, from Thirteen) is abducted. Maggie and Jones set out to reclaim her daughter, against the indifference of the Army, the law and the unforgiving wilderness.
"It's an adult, sophisticated kind of family story," Howard insists of his disagreeable follow-up to A Beautiful Mind. The Missing opens with Maggie in the outhouse. "In the first few minutes of the movie, we wanted to say, even when life is good out there, it's hard," Howard tells me, with the same seeming guilelessness as in his roles as a child actor. "It's uncomfortable. In establishing the world, we're also saying, these aren't movie star turns you're going to be watching, these are characters we're going to be trying to bring to the screen. I was staking out that ground."
Howard claims he wasn't looking for a Western after Disney fired him from its $100 million-plus The Alamo -- they wanted a PG-13 rating, but Howard and Grazer wanted to make a bloody, R-rated film like The Missing -- but that this script appealed to him, with its dark and troubling canvas of revenge, and also the idea of working quickly, on locations in New Mexico and with a cinematographer (Salvatore Totino of Changing Lanes) who hadn't expressed interest in shooting period pictures. (Totino's work is superb, a fresh eye cast upon an old genre.)
But Howard likes Westerns. "Y'know, the audience breaks into two groups. There's a large group that does yearn to see a Western and I think that group will find enough of what they expect to respond to it positively. But then there's this whole other group out there that says, "Western? I don't think so. Not interested.' My partner Brian Grazer was in that group, y'know? That's why I was so shocked when he loved the script. I read it, I love these characters, I love these situations, I just wonder what Brian's going to think. It's a Western and he hates 'em."
Gathering up steam to mimic Grazer's delivery, Howard says the producer said, "'Wow! Wow! It's so intense! And the violence is so original! And the emotional circumstances of these characters is moving!' "
Still, I had to wonder about how the endangerment to Lilly is shown. Unlike the 1950s discretion of a movie like John Ford's influential The Searchers, which The Missing invites comparisons to, Wood's character is repeatedly shown in peril: bound and gagged, threatened with rape, forced to eat dirt, lipsticked crudely, but next seen as carefully dolled-up as an Olsen twin on a first date. What were the boundaries?
"I wanted it to be, y'know, intense, but not, um, not graphic, not... I didn't necessarily want to play for shock value. But I did want to present sort of an authentic sense of the world and the times. Y'know, you mentioned The Searchers. John Sayles, the writer, is a friend of mine. When I was telling him what I was doing, and the storyline, he said, 'Well, that sounds a little like The Searchers, a movie that I really like,' and I said, 'Yeah, I like it, too, it's a lot like The Searchers, except for theme, plot and characterization."
Okay, but the contrast that came to my mind is that in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) spends decades in the wilderness searching for his kidnapped niece (who grows up to be Natalie Wood), who's lived all those years in the bed of an Indian. We never see that side of the story, but the secret beating heart of Ford's film is this all-consuming rage of Wayne's character, fearing the despoiling of his kin.
In The Missing, however, we get near-pornographic flashes of a beautiful teenager in bondage, being abused. "Well, there is... Look, it's the inciting incident," he tells me, using a screenwriting term of art that describes what sets a plot into motion. "A white girl taken by Indians. And the pursuit, y'know, an attempt to rescue." He pauses, ponders for a second. "But I think what I found interesting about the script when I read it was that the nature of the brujo" -- Schweig's Apache madman -- "was so strange and metaphysical, and the father-daughter storyline between Tommy and Cate was really relatable in contemporary terms."
So it's timeless? "You could literally pick this storyline up and put it into any city," he insists, "make a couple of changes and the basic storyline would still really work."