Critical Film Review: The Missing – Subverting Western Stereotypes

Ron_HowardRon Howard’s 2003 film, The Missing, is a Western that destabilizes the classic Western genre. Audiences looking for a Hollywood-style Western get all of the expected elements: the isolated ranch, the horse chase, and the canyon shootout, but the story is played by contemporary characters. Instead of a Stetson-wearing gunslinger, we get the Native wannabe, Samuel Jones. Instead of a helpless, emotional settler woman, we get iron-willed, competent ranch owner, Maggie Gilkison. Instead of the uneducated, rough-and-ready cowboy, we get a sensitive, intelligent man who talks instead of fights. Instead of war-wooping, or spiritually superior Indians, we get Apache Calvary deserters who are out to make a buck.  Put it all together and the audience could be watching an action drama, except the coyote on the ridge, and the frozen breath of the cattle all cry Western. The inclusion of a contemporary character in a Western is not unheard of. Mattie Ross in True Grit will attest to that. Ron Howard, however, wipes the traditional Western slate clean of stereotypical characters in The Missing, and leaves the dedicated Western audience feeling a little off-kilter.

The Missing immerses the viewer into the cultural clash of New Mexico, 1885. Prejudice exists naturally between Mexican, American settler, Apache, Calvary and the Chiricahua. This prejudice between the groups does not prevent economic and social interactions from occurring, and it is from these very interactions that the movie’s captive saga plot erupts.

The movie begins when an old Mexican woman seeks help from a white healer, Maggie Gilkison, (Cate Blanchett). Maggie runs a ranch with the help of two daughters, a lover and a hired Mexican. Maggie shows her ability to get the job done when she stoically yanks out the old woman’s tooth, against a screaming string of Mexican curses. Maggie is no prairie flower. Abandoned by her father as a young child, she has survived to become a hard-edged, driving force on the ranch. She is a knowledgeable healer and a strict mother. When her daughter tries to get out of ranch work by complaining of cramps in front of the ranch hand, Brake, Maggie puts her straight.  “Don’t you ever act helpless and pitiable to win favour with a man”.  Isn’t that what Western film women do? As a Western character, Maggie is a unique female who depends on no man for survival and is in complete control of her relationship with a man.

Most female leads in Westerns are left behind as the cowboy rides into the sunset, or the female victoriously succeeds in marrying the lead man. According to ranch hand Brake, Maggie has turned down his multiple requests of marriage, opting instead to keep him as a lover and a ranch worker. Females in Western films usually don’t take lovers unless they are prostitutes. Maggie isn’t going to take any chances of being left behind by any man, because she knows how much that hurts. She was abandoned by her father many years before, and she shields her heart just enough to ensure it never happens again.

After years of estrangement, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives at the ranch to reconcile with his daughter, Maggie. We know the hero when he rides into the scene. The silent Bronson-style confidence and deep Clint Eastwood lines on Jones’ face give the hero away. But these creases don’t rest under a typical wide-brimmed, cowboy hat and there is no six-shooter resting on his hip. Jones wears his hair “injun” style, sports Native beads around his neck and wears moccasins on his feet. Unlike typical Western characters who gain Native knowledge through fighting Indian wars, Jones has spent the last twenty or so years living with different tribes, trying to be something other than white. The viewer has to work hard to determine if the character is white or Native.

Maggie’s prejudiced statements clear up any doubt. “He [Jones] ran off—went Indian. Turn your back, he’ll eat your horses and dogs…I do not want him near my children.” Her words echo the gut-deep racism of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, and this connection to the classic Western is stark in the die-hard Western audience’s mind. The viewer knows Samuel Jones is going to be the hero, but the fact that he prefers the Native American lifestyle to the white, settler society challenges the audience’s genre-knowledge. Contemporary audiences are open to the idea of a Native hero after culturally sensitive films such as Little Big Man in which the North American Native is portrayed as belonging to a distinct and valuable culture. But Jones is a deadbeat dad with an identity crisis, and he’s not playing the parody like Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou. Jones’ tragic life is not funny. Whatever power The Missing had to entertain the viewer is slowly sacrificed as Howard challenges the viewer’s preconceptions. Howard serves up what the Western audience expects and then creates confusion with the unexpected with Jones’ character.

The next character Howard parades in front of the viewer’s now distrusting eyes is Brake, the lover (Aaron Edward Eckhart). Handsome, clean shaven, sporting a wide brimmed hat and a rifle, Brake is our cowboy. But he is so much more. He is the hands of leather, and the heart of silk. He is the chivalrous knight, and the sacrificial lamb. When racist banter breaks out between Jones and the Mexican hired hand, Brake does not encourage a fight, like the typical cowboy would. Instead, he uses a firm, fatherly tone to quell the heat. “They’ll be no trouble here. If that’s too tough for you to understand, you can move on”. Later, when Jones comes to dine with the family, Brake introduces the graying, Native wannabe Jones as a “gentleman”. When Jones is rejected by Maggie’s excuse of not having enough food, Brake generously suggests they “all do with less,” in order to share with Jones. Brake is far from the bean plate kicking cowboy in Will Penny. Unlike the typical cowboy who visits the town prostitute once every six months, Brake works for a woman who accepts his physical affection, but refuses his proposals of marriage. He respectfully agrees to the terms of their relationship (sleeping in the barn when guests are on the ranch). He can be trusted with the daughters, and Maggie’s broken heart. He’s not crude, or a braggart, his skills do not end at cattle branding or horsemanship, and he uses words to avoid violence. Like the stereotypical cowboy, Brake is strong, as he proves when Maggie insists Jones leaves the ranch. Brake fires his gun into the air and states with conviction, “Maggie asked you to leave. I think it’s time you did so, sir. Right about now”. Brake is eventually slaughtered ruthlessly by the “bad guys”. Howard continues to subvert the stereotypical by not allowing the audience the satisfaction of watching Brake, the cowboy, fight for his life. The discovery of Brake’s body is disappointing and leaves the audience wondering what purpose his character played (other than a stereotypical challenge).

The next Western archetype Howard subverts in this film is the Native American. Maggie’s eldest daughter is captured by Apaches who steal women and sell them over the Mexican border.  This is not the arrow-shooting, riding, half-naked Apache of Hollywood’s golden years. The viewer soon figures out that this is a group of extortionists who have goals, deadlines and buyers. These Apache work on profit—they don’t “sully” the goods by raping the women, because that lowers the price. Some of the Apache members still wear parts of their Calvary uniform, threads from their time as scouts. Ron Howard makes a point to show that these aren’t just Apache—they are men who have collaborated with the enemy, who have sold women for money and therefore, belong to the human race. They are not the enemy because they are Native. They are not the enemy because they stand in the way of Colonization. They are the enemy because they subvert civilization with cruelty and dysfunctional ambition. These Apache work their shady deals with Mexicans and whites. Scenes from The Missing show that Indians can be victimized by other Indians, and that Natives can be racist. When Jones tells his Chiricahua friend, Kayitah that he has made Maggie angry, Kayitah replies, “How can you tell (she’s angry)? You people look pissed off all the time”. Howard’s intention behind his portrayal of non-typical, more complex Native American characters seems to be to convince the audience that people in Westerns can be multifaceted. However, when the audience can no longer suspend disbelief and enjoy the movie, because they are puzzling over the parade of non-genre standard characters, then the film may be failing as a form of entertainment.

In The Missing, Howard has taken every typical character from a Western and stripped away stereotypical and expected traits. Women can be strong, heroes can be irresponsible, Native Americans can be terrorists, cowboys can be sensitive and intelligent, children can be courageous, and Calvary and law enforcers can fail to protect the weak. We’ve seen many, if not all of these stereotypes challenged in film, but rarely have we seen all stereotypes challenged in one film. For an audience, watching The Missing is an exercise in getting one’s hand slapped. Howard ensures that any preconceived notion of what the audience thinks a Western character will be is subverted and challenged. Any pleasure the Western film viewer would get from knowing the character, and thereby guessing actions and outcomes, is yanked away by the unpredictability of this film’s characters. Ron Howard has made his point—you can take the Western stereotypes out of a film and still have a Western. But, one question remains. Do genre savvy audiences want to lose their nostalgic enjoyment of a Western sacrificed to the social recognition of people as individuals? It’s up to the viewer to decide.


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