by Matt Smith
The Komplete Val Kilmography (2003-2012) is a twice weekly column that will run through the summer. I will be viewing and writing about each film Val Kilmer appeared in (as long as I can track down a copy of it) in the past decade.
2003’s The Missing is a loose riff on the 1956 John Ford Western The Searchers, one of the most critically acclaimed and enduring films of the classical Hollywood era. This is fitting, as director Ron Howard’s past decade was spent dwelling on Hollywood genres and the old fashioned concept of a “prestige” picture, even while pursuing his dreams of adapting Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series for film and television and producing pure crap like The Dilemma. Some of these films have been more successful than others. I place The Missing firmly in the successful camp.
Set in New Mexico in the 1880s, the film focuses on the strained relationship between a frontier medicine woman, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), and her estranged father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), who has spent the past thirty years or so living among various Native American tribes in the Southwest after abandoning his own family. They are brought together when Maggie’s daughter Lilly is abducted by a band of Indians looking to sell girls into prostitution in Mexico. Together, Maggie and Samuel set out to find the missing girl, and grow a little closer, though I get the distinct impression that no matter what the outcome of their journey is, they would never have achieved full reconciliation.
In many ways, the relationship between Maggie and Samuel is that of a traditional Western hero and the young boy tagging along who must become a man, but it mixes up that tradition by portraying each of them as variously strong and weak, either physically, mentally, or spiritually. While Samuel is no Ethan Edwards, Maggie is also no Martha Edwards, left behind at the homestead while the men go out and search for her missing dauther. Maggie can shoot, she’s a single mother living in the untamed territories alone with her daughters and hired help, and she proves integral to the success of the search for Lilly.
The Missing is ultimately an adventure film of the highest order, and it tweaks the conventions of the Western just enough to problematize narratively the very problems that many people have had with the genre. First, and most obvious: the Indians. While the white people are indeed terrorized by them, and a shaman with apparently very real supernatural powers is the central enemy in the film, there are some subtle nuances that deserve mentioning.
Samuel has spent the majority of his life with Native Americans, and even married several of them. He sympathizes with their way of life, and in one scene (the scene that qualifies this film for this very essay series) he witnesses the mistreatment of Indians by a federal Army regiment and says that he has to leave before he ends up having to kill someone. Additionally, one of his friends from the tribes, Kayitah (Jay Tavare), turns up searching for his son’s future wife who has also been abducted by the rogue band of Indians. He joins Samuel and Maggie to concoct a plan to save all of the girls.
The relationship between whites and Indians in New Mexico is fleshed out a bit more thanks to Kayitah’s existence. Not only do we get a glimpse at the friendship that has developed between Samuel and the tribes, but also we get to see Native characters who are not bad, do not attempt to harm anyone other than the bad guys, and we are exposed to some of the problems between tribes themselves when he comes up against the rogue Apache, who kill him without honor and who even within the views of Kayitah and his son are considered outlaws.
Second, The Missing is pretty critical about the United States and its official policies during the expansion westward. Early on in the film, while Samuel is looking around a house that was attacked earlier and a girl abducted from, he comes up against an Army regiment traveling through New Mexico with orders to round up any Indians for deportation, presumably to Florida, where there was a prison system holding Native Americans while whites continued moving into their tribal lands. This regiment, led by Lt. Jim Ducharme (Val Kilmer), is shown not only mistreating the Indians they have captured, but also looting the farm house from which the white girl was taken. Kilmer’s role may be very minor, but it is nonetheless important. He is the face of the U.S. government we are shown in the film. Otherwise, it is a faceless entity the Apaches are acting out against, several of them having abandoned their posts as scouts within the Army themselves.
In this scene, Samuel and Maggie look on in horror as the enlisted men take anything and everything of value while under the guise of the United States government. And rightly so. This was a complex portion of our past that has long been whitewashed not only in history books but also in popular portrayals in film and television. And while The Missing may still be more traditional and centered on the experience of white settlers even at the expense of the legitimate claims of Native communities who have fought for centuries now to change popular perceptions of what happened to them after colonization, it has nonetheless made some progress in its portrayals of historical events, and even presents us with that ultimate rarity in American cinema: a sympathetic Native character portrayed by an actual member of the Native community. At least in the reverential style of the classical Western The Missing embodies, this is a milestone.
This is a very good Hollywood movie. Jones and Blanchett are good on screen together, and Howard knows how to shoot a Western. The visual textures that define so much of the genre are all spot on. I wasn’t too big on it when I saw it theatrically, but it has grown on me, and my viewing experience while preparing for the Kilmography series was exceptional. I really got into the film and its weird, distorted sense of white-appropriated Native American spirituality which is surrounded by some very fine action sequences. See this one if you haven’t.