If The Missing weren’t set in the Southwest of 1885, Ron Howard’s cowboys-and-Indians-and-family-therapy movie could take place in new-millennium Orange County, or Boston, or Every Movietown, USA — any place where an admirable single mother is raising healthy, rebellious children with no help from a man. Such a heroine (for that’s what all women are in Howard’s enlightened mythology) would certainly fight like hell if, heaven forbid, one of her children were abducted. And by movie logic (and the hard-won insights of late-20th-century psychotherapy), should that heroic mother happen to be estranged from her own distant, sumbitch father, it’s a sure bet that the family crisis would bring father and adult daughter together again, to weep and learn and forgive one another on the road to reconciliation while rescuing the child in peril.
All this transpires in ”The Missing,” adapted from Thomas Eidson’s 1995 novel ”The Last Ride” into a soft script by Ken Kaufman: Cate Blanchett is Maggie Gilkeson, tough-love mother of two spirited girls; Evan Rachel Wood is her kidnapped teenage daughter, Lilly, who — for an added dollop of parental guilt — has squabbled with her mother shortly before she disappears; and Tommy Lee Jones glowers as the ornery coot, called Jones, who left Maggie when she was a little girl herself, rode away to live with the Apache people, and now shows up at her homestead a rueful old man.
But the movie also wants to be a period Western — Howard’s take on a dark, ”Searchers”-like saga — and a story of clashing Christian faith and nativist spirit-world powers, too: Lilly is one of a bouquet of young women plucked by Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a psychopathic brujo, or witch, who sells girls into slavery and casts spells on anyone who gets in his way. And that’s where the film suffers, so overdetermined and distracted by its own therapeutic lesson plan that despite the movie’s mood-sensitive photography by cinematographer Salvatore Totino (”Changing Lanes”), all old-fashioned Western-ness fades in the sunset.
Blanchett, of course, does what she can, gorgeously; she always does. She masters a frontier accent, fires a gun, rides a horse, interacts with children (the younger daughter is played by determined little spitfire Jenna Boyd, who previously worked with Jones in ”The Hunted”), and acts out a bout of acute fever that may be Pesh-Chidin’s mystical doing. (The spirit-world stuff has the feel of a New West Spa rather than Old West Magic.) Blanchett always works modestly, with an economy of display that veils her hard technical work. What she can’t do, though, is connect with the alienating Tommy Lee Jones, who, stubborn and uninviting, budges for no one. What’s missing in ”The Missing” — despite throwing in The Everything, from magic trinkets to group hugs — is soul.