This powerful western drama is an effective reminder of how important it is
to match the good guys and the bad. Dramatic force is only as gripping as
the level of that opposition. The elemental matchup in this thriller steeped
in naturalism makes it a major accomplishment from all creative contributors.
Its steady suspense might well make it a serious contender for this year's
Best Picture award.
Stalwart frontier homemaker Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), mother to two
girls, lover to ranch hand Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), scraps out a living
as a "healer" to all inhabitants of the plains within a wide radius:
white man, Indian, Mexican alike. One day, a lone rider appears, identifying
himself as Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) seeking the care of the healer. He
has the garb and manner of the indian but he's clearly white, which is part
of the reason his presence is greatly upsetting to Maggie.
It's quickly revealed that he's the father who abandoned her and her family
to go off into the wilderness where he lived among the indians and took an
indian wife -- to much bad blood for Maggie to forgive or to accomodate.
After he has a brief violent squabble with Brake and ranch hand Emiliano
(Sergio Calderon), she orders him off her land.
While young Dot (Jenna Boyd) is a daughter any struggling mother would be
proud of, what with her feisty capability and intense loyalty, older daughter
Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) is another matter. She's the family rebel,
disobedient and complaining, pining for city attractions over slavish needs
of the ranch and household. When Brake volunteers to take Lily on a shopping
mission to the city with Emiliano, her teenage heart is finally happy.
But the group doesn't return that night and, when there's no sign of them by
dawn, Maggie and Dot set out to investigate. What they find is tragedy,
Brake and Emiliano dead in an abandoned encampment, Lily missing. They rush
into town to seek help from sheriff Purdy (Clint Howard) and the army, only
to discover Jones in jail for drunkenness and the army going the wrong way in
pursuit of a band of army deserters who have been trafficking in kidnapped
teenage women across the border in Mexico.
Distraught beyond her capability to bear, she strikes a deal with her
personal devil, her estranged father, to help her track down this criminal
pack led by the brutal Chidin (Eric Schweig), an Apache medicine man of great
evil. This is a villainous character with the look and soul of a jackal.
(His genuine scariness, mortal and mystical, makes Freddy and others of the
horror genre seem cartoonish). The chilling quest to rescue Lily from this
demon's clutches takes Maggie, Jones and Dot on a journey of torment,
supernatural sickness and offensive strategies that fail as often as they
succeed, elevating traditional western fare to a 21st century standard of
realism that translates into rarely experienced narrative power.
Following his smash directorial hit, "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), Oklahoma born Ron Howard works
from a script by Ken Kaufman who himself worked from the Thomas Eidson novel,
"The Last Ride" (a possibly better title). Howard is on
the trail here of something big by way of worldwide recognition and award
consideration for his masterful mining of a simple story of child rescue for
all the emotional depth of the individuals caught within its courageous
pursuits. While another director might have gone for the elemental saga of
the western, Howard keeps the proportions far more effective by maintaining a
The immense hurts and grievances that form the relationship between daughter
Maggie and father Samuel permeates the hunt, allowing a process of healing and
understanding. Jones and Blanchett have rarely turned in more fiercely
realized characters balancing need against condemnation, allowing hardened
scars to soften, if not disappear. These two give this film its driving force
with pure character integrity.
In a moment that points up the enormity of what's at stake, when their
rescue attempt is thwarted and the anguish of failure is unavoidable, Jones
suggests that Blanchett take her one surviving daughter and go home.
Releasing herself from one daughter will ensure the survival of the other, he
posits. After a moment exploring the idea, she says, "I don't know how to do
that." And the lethally dangerous mission continues with no diminishment of
Jenna Boyd ("The Hunted")
turns in an astonishing performance as
younger daughter Dot. This 10 year old from Texas takes the screen from her
commanding co-stars with an exquisitely tuned assertive force rarely seen or
written for her age group. In range and presence throughout this struggle she
mirrors her mother's grit and is nothing less than magnetic. Put her on your
list of talents to watch. It's by no act of mere serendipity that this is
her 4th feature film.
Val Kilmer is good as a less than admirable army general. Aaron Eckhart is
solid as the man who would marry Maggie if she'd allow it. Jay Tavare is on
the mark as the reasonable indian ally Kayitah. Eric Schweig is outstanding
as the horrendous Chidin. This fine actor's ability to convey predatory evil
is a major part of the film's unrelaxed hold.
If there are negatives, it's for Blanchett's chic wardrobe that seems to
remain dust-free and finely textured out in the New Mexico badlands of 1885,
and for one rescue attempt sequence too many, risking the fatigue brought on
~~ Jules Brenner