The Missing (2003)
The disappointing box-office performance of the Western thriller The Missing despite of the very powerful acting by Cate Blanchett as Maggie Cilkeson and Tom Lee Jones as Samuel Jones is for me yet another indication that, in general, people do not go to movies to see reality but rather to escape it.
For The Missing is uncomfortably real.
The powerful story is based on the 1995 novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson and the movie was directed by Ron Howard..
The desert of New Mexico is one of the stars in the movie and the areas in Santa Fe are photographed with great skill and obvious love of the rough nature, its rock formations, canyons, sandy plains and sturdy plants. The nature creates an eerie world in which the complex and real people, white American Christians, good and bad, genuine Apaches speaking their own language, nasty Mexican criminals planning to buy some white women, go through violent tragedies and emotional upheavals shaping their relationships and attitudes and leading to the deaths of many.
What evil people did in late 19th century New Mexico! What evil people do there today. What it is to be a captive woman to be sold to slavery in Mexico.
The most interesting part in this movie for me as a theologian is the description of Native American religion, shamanism. It is involved in several ways, in protective amulets and ritual acts, in dark curses of black magic, and in causing sickness and providing healing through prayer and chant.
The Missing clearly has a message here.
The apprehension of the magic protection provided by Samuel to the child and her despise of the religion of the handsome Kayitah (Jay Tavare), a Chiricachua, as an upright Western Christian woman is finely acted by Maggie. The large cross she is carrying has a central role in the movie and can perhaps be seen as a counterpart to the protective magic Native American necklace.
Ron Howard uses the cursing of Maggie with the help of her lost hairbrush by the very convincing Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig) to set the two religions into context. The curse works making Maggie suddenly very sick and thus demonstrating the reality of shamanism. Also the protecting and healing chants and magic work and bring Maggie back to health. The young white girl Dot Glickeson (Jenny Boyd) joins in to the aborigine prayer for her deadly sick mother holding a Christian prayer book in her hand.
The thing is that in my opinion the depiction of shamanism in this movie is real.
This is no regular Hollywood stuff but like an actual documentary of Native American religion as seen from inside. It catches the very scary undertones present in this religion not so far from the underworld, from the otherside.
I do not remember having seen another movie where the religious element of Native Americans is shown in such a powerful manner and contrasted with the religion of the whites, Christianity.