December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

WESTERN

Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Jenna Boyd

Maggie is a healer, helping others with their medical ills, but she can’t heal herself. More than 20 years after her father abandoned Maggie (Blanchett) and her mother to go off and live with the Apaches, the wound of his leaving is still raw. When her father (Jones) finally returns, it takes Maggie days to work up to asking, “Why didn’t you stay?” Those four simple words distill the pain of a lifetime.

It’s a mark of The Missing’s accumulated power that, by the time she finally utters those words, we understand how much it costs her to voice them—and how much it costs her father to find an answer that will explain the unexplainable.

Maggie is the resourceful heroine of director Ron Howard’s compelling, if dragged out, tale of revenge and redemption. Set in New Mexico in 1885 and based on Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride, the film charts the changes in Maggie’s thorny relationship with her father after the two reunite to rescue her teenage daughter (Wood). The girl has been kidnapped by a group of Army deserters led by a brujo (Eric Schweig), a Native American shaman who uses his magical powers for evil.

The movie, with its thematic similarities (stolen youngsters, going native and the threat of rape) to such Western classics as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), contains few surprises in its broad strokes. But it’s the fine brush-work—the careful character development and the father-daughter exchanges—as well as its use of magic realism and feminist leanings that distinguish Missing. Blanchett, who seems to have a limitless range, is fast becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation, and her fierce performance here is another indication why. A grizzled Jones, as a man who knows he has caused more hurt than he can ever salve, is an accomplished foil. (R)

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