Is it a slasher film or a sagebrush saga? You can’t really tell from the TV ads for “The Missing,” which are all shrieks and shock cuts directed at the “Friday the 13th” demographic rather than the more, ahem, demanding “Lonesome Dove” crowd.

Never mind. The answer comes almost as soon as you hunker down in the gloom of the theater. Directed by Ron Howard and co-starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones in sinewy, Oscar-worthy turns, “The Missing” is a little of both genres, a brooding hybrid of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes.”

It is also Howard’s best film to date (nudging aside “Apollo 13”) and the finest large-scale Western since 1992’s “Unforgiven.” In one fell swoop, nice guy Howard has embraced his dark side and has made up for “Far and Away,” his bloated homage to “How the West Was Won.” This time, he has nailed the adult Western, fusing action, frontier authenticity (we’re in 1885 New Mexico territory) and a satisfying father-daughter reunion drama.

Blanchett is Maggie, a single mother of two girls who’s struggling with a medical practice to offset a failing ranch. Jones plays Samuel, her leathery, taciturn father who abandoned the family 20 years ago for a life with the Cherokee and Apache. Now more Indian than white man, he returns to make amends with a daughter who wishes he were dead.

This changes when her daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood of “Once and Again”) is kidnapped by a psychotic medicine man (Eric Schweig) and his band of renegade army scouts who are making for the border with several hostages. Maggie, with her younger daughter (Jenna Boyd) in tow, is determined to give chase. But to save Lilly she must make a pact with the devil – and ride with her father.

As Howard himself has acknowledged, this premise owes something to Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), wherein John Wayne rides to the rescue of a niece who has been kidnapped. But Howard’s tale of pursuit and redemption is more violent and atmospheric, and – because it balances savagery (Schweig’s “witch” bakes, blinds and vivisects captives) with Indian spiritualism and valor – it handily dodges the charge of racism that has dogged the Ford classic.

Don’t miss “The Missing.” It’s as harrowing as it is full-out exhilarating. Right from the opening sequence, we know Howard’s up to something brave and different. He begins in the gloom of an outhouse and moves to the gloom of a prairie cabin, where Maggie takes the pliers to an old woman’s only remaining tooth. The horrors to come will make that seem almost cheery.



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