On the Trail of the Hawk

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In The Missing, Tommy Lee Jones tells this story: An Apache gets up one morning and sees a hawk perching in a tree. He follows the hawk when it takes off, and he is never seen again. In the afterlife, he encounters his wife, who asks him why he never returned. The hawk, he replies, never stopped flying.

That's pretty much the way it has been for the character played by Jones, who is also called Jones. He deserted his family to live among the Indians of the Southwest for decades. Except now, on an early-spring day in 1885, he rides out of the forest seeking "the healer," a.k.a. Maggie (Cate Blanchett), who is, in fact, his deeply estranged daughter. She fixes up his minor injury but, understanding that it's just a pretext for a hoped-for reconciliation, angrily rejects him.

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The next day her lover is cruelly murdered, and her elder daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) is abducted by a renegade Indian band intent on selling Lilly and some other young women into sexual slavery in Mexico. The local sheriff won't help Maggie, and the Army is looking in all the wrong places. Only Jones, wise in the ways of the Indians and adept at tracking in the trackless wilderness, can help her and her spunky younger child Dot (Jenna Boyd) recover Lilly before it's too late.

What we have here is the makings of a not unfamiliar western narrative, some elements of which (the captive innocents, the scout who owes his skills to his intimacy with the natives) can be traced back to James Fenimore Cooper and beyond. What sets The Missing apart is a potent mystical element. The raiders are led by an unrelievedly evil shaman called Chidin (Eric Schweig), who can throw a handful of dirt in a man's face and permanently blind him or send a dark thought across the miles and bring a woman near to death. He brings out Jones' shamanistic side, and their struggle becomes one of mind as well as muscle. But Ken Kaufman's script and director Ron Howard's admirably bleak landscapes make us believe we're in country where strange things might happen.

The acting too helps ground the film in a reality that somehow makes the mystic shenanigans believable. Jones, the actor, has never been more wry, sly and taciturn. He won't yield to his pain — to the memory of past mistakes, the implacable fury of the daughter he deserted — yet you feel it in his every movement. As for Blanchett, she's simply wonderful. She has played her share of queenly figures, but her acting essence is, emotionally speaking, plain-Jane. She's a straight shooter, with an uncanny ability to find a character's spine and communicate it without fuss or feathers.

The fact that Maggie's skill with folk medicine analogizes her father's magical skills hints from the outset that she's more his daughter than she cares to acknowledge. But their journey to a guessable, fateful ending turns out to be richer, more surprising than we might imagine. This is one of those genre pieces that take more interesting chances than they want to (openly) admit.