Phil Konstantin's Review of The Missing.




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The Missing


I wrote this review in September 2004.



This review is of the 2003 film, The Missing.

A brief description of the movie from the website http://www.imdb.com is: "In 19th-century New Mexico, a father (Tommy Lee Jones) comes back home, hoping to reconcile with his adult daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett). Maggie's daughter is kidnapped, forcing father and estranged daughter to work together to get her back." The Missing is an action-filled, suspense, thriller, western. Somewhat similar to the classic The Searchers, The Missing adds a considerable amount of Hollywood mysticism.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Samuel Jones (Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan). The meaning of Chaa-duu-ba-its-iidan provides a bit of comic relief later in the film. Jones' character has been living with the Apache for the last 20 years. Not long after Jones tries to reconcile with his daughter, Pesh-Chidin, (played by Eric Schweig, also in Skins) kidnaps Blanchette's daughter. Pesh-Chidin is a psychopathic killer with mystical powers. He and his band of renegades have just "broke-out" of their reservation. They are kidnapping white girls in order to sell them to into slavery in Mexico.

As a considerable part of the movie involves Pesh-Chidin, his band of renegades, and a couple of Apaches who come to Jones' aid, there are quite a few American Indian actors in the movie. Steve Reevis is Two Stones; Jay Tavare is Kayitah; Simon Baker is Honesco, Kayitah's son; Deryle J. Lujan is Naazhaao/'Hunter.'

According to director Ron Howard, as much as it is a character-driven suspense drama, The Missing is also the story of an arduous journey through New Mexico. "This story is a true expedition that starts out in the high country and ends up at the Mexican border in the high desert," says Howard. "Like the characters, we went from snow to heat waves. That made the story palpable for audiences in grasping the characters' transitory experience."

The movie was filmed in the Valles Caldera in the high country north of Santa Fe, near the national park at Los Alamos. At the Zia Pueblo, an eerie, desiccated mesa of white gypsum, 65 mph winds suddenly kicked up, blinding and choking the cast and crew. Some exterior shots were made at the Santa Clara Pueblo. The producers reproduced the ancient site to shoot more of the interior details.

To quote from the movie's official website, "In terms of the Native American characters, it is much more time-specific, Weiss says, "Because of when the film takes place, we were able to show what was happening to the Apache nation at that time, how sad it was that they were being forcibly 'westernized.' Any time a costume designer is asked to help represent a group where there has been an attempt to dispense with their identity, it is an honor as well as a responsibility. The Apaches were on a part of their journey where their clothing was becoming 'westernized' without choice. Through dress, their culture and identity was being stripped away. Although Kayitah and Honesco's clothes remain closer to their tribal base, availability of materials had become easier. The Apache scouts would often wear pieces of the Calvary uniform. But when the military no longer wanted any part of them, the visual history gets mixed up and you can see it in their clothing, which reflects where they have been rather than who they are."

Pesh-Chidin, however, knows exactly who he is, and everything about his clothing conveys a sense of demonic power and foreboding, according to Weiss. "Pesh is an outsider. If he is foreboding, it's because those who know that they have the power to terrify can emit an aura of the abuse of power, an emotional clearing around them. The power of Pesh is toxic. Whatever gifts he had as a healer became tainted. He chose a path of evil pride. He wears his trophies (the tintypes), which are a roster of his victims. Anyone who has to wear his past to shield a misuse of power is someone who should not only shed his costume, but his soul."

One of Howard's boldest gambles in The Missing was the use of Apache dialogue (with subtitles) against a backdrop of palpable action. The reason it worked so well and didn't interfere with the momentum, says Grazer, "is because we treated it in a very vital way. The characters who spoke Apache, did so in a modern way. There was humor. There was an edge to it. It was how real people would talk, not like characters in a history book."

In preparation for the film, Jones, Tavare, Baker and other Apache characters had to learn how to speak Chiricahua, a dialect of the Apache language. The Missing contains several scenes with interchanges in this difficult and demanding Apache tongue. "There are five or six different groups of Apaches, each of whom speak a slightly different language," explains Jones. "We had to study the Chiricahua dialect carefully and thoroughly."

The actors were taught by teachers who also served as consultants on the film -- Elbys Hugar and Berle Kanseah, Chiricahua elders with an impressive Apache pedigree, as well as Scott Rushforth, a college professor with a specialty in Native American languages. "Apache is one of the most difficult of all the native languages to perfect," explains Tavare. "It has glottal stops, sibilent Ls, and there are some words that, even if you pronounce them correctly, if you punctuate them in the wrong place, mean something completely different."

"In my mind, there was never any question that the actors playing Native Americans would have to speak Apache," Howard explains. "We were extremely fortunate that Elbys, Berle and Scott agreed to help us. Elbys in particular, comes from a line of great Apache leaders. Her grandfather is Cochise and her great-grandfather is Naiche. Cochise is well known as a formidable and infamous Chiricahua warrior. Naiche was the chief of the Chiricahua band that evaded the military for many years, along with Geronimo, who is better known. But in truth, Geronimo was just the medicine man."

The actors went beyond the rudiments of Chiricahua to learn many of its subtleties. "One of the great joys for me was how intriguing and entertaining the culture is and how that comes across in the language," says Howard. "Much of the humor in the film comes in the interactions between Jones and Kayitah (Jay Tavare) and the Apaches talking about the white folks. They are famous for their dry sense of humor. It's quite an amazing culture." In the script, Chiricahua Apaches have given the wandering Jones an affectionate and humorous name. It emerged from a conversation producer Ostroff had with Rushforth. "Dan asked me what the Chiricahua might call someone like Jones, who can't settle down, abandons his family, and is alone," says Rushforth. "The Chiricahua hold family in extremely high regard, so I jokingly told Dan that they'd call Jones 'shit out of luck.' Dan passed my comment along to Ron Howard, who thought it was funny, and the name stuck." The actors studied with their teachers for about seven weeks prior to filming and continued throughout the production. For Hugar, who has compiled two Chiricahua dictionaries with Rushforth, it was a chance to demonstrate the beauty and intricacy of the language, which is in danger of disappearing. "It was an opportunity to show young people that they can learn the language, too, which is important, because it's dying out," says Hugar. "When I was working as a curator at a museum, I had a class of about 50 kids and asked how many understood their language and could speak any Apache. Just two of them raised their hands."

The actors appreciated learning not only the language, but also the nuances of the culture. "It was wonderful to work with the Apache elders," Tavare says. "Their stories were fascinating and gave me a stronger sense of my character."

While the movie heightens the evil nature of Pesh-Chidin, it also features American Indian characters that are more well-rounded. Granted, this is intended to be a thriller, not an anthropological study. The DVD version of the movie has some interesting background information of the production of the movie.

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