In 1885 New Mexico, there lives a modern fantasy of a frontier woman, Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett). She's a no-nonsense single mom, a rancher and a healer. She keeps a hunky lover whom she makes sleep in the barn for the sake of her children's delicate sensibilities. (Just where was this Wild West anyhow?)
And lo one evening her deadbeat dad, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), turns up. Decades ago, he ran off to join the Apaches and now he's back, with crazy hair extensions and a new Indian name. Maggie's miffed -- not so much as a Christmas card in all these years. Still, she patches up his chest ache (could it be a broken heart?) and orders him off her property by dawn. But when her teen-age daughter Lilly is kidnapped by Indians the very next day, it's a lucky break that her otherwise worthless poppa is a pretty good tracker. So, off they go -- Jones, Gilkeson and her spunky other daughter, Dot -- on an utterly predictable journey to rescue poor Lilly and spend some time "healing as a family."
Such predictability is the biggest problem with director Ron Howard's revisionist Western based on a novel by Thomas Eidson (Presumably any narrative similarities to John Ford's masterful 1956 film The Searchers -- about an outcast family member returning to restore domestic harmony -- are entirely coincidental.)
And because everything old is new again, this film reaches back to old-school Westerns in one curious way: Howard hyper-demonizes Lilly's kidnapper, the Indian Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig) -- though maybe it's just to make the chilly bad-dad Jones look better by comparison. But, as if abducting a child isn't bad enough, the film stresses that Pesh-Chidin kidnaps white teen-age girls to sell as sex slaves to Mexicans; his face is brutally scarred; he has a nasty nickname, "Brujo," that means witch; and he wears a freaky necklace made from daguerreotypes of his victims. He is, in the parlance of earlier Westerns, one bad Injun yessir.
But Howard is nothing if not a cautious and politically correct director, so naturally our fractured little family is aided by good family-oriented Indians. Jones is portrayed as "in" with the Apaches, though it's never satisfactorily explained why he went native. And their name for him -- which translates as "shit for luck" -- seems to indicate the affection may not be quite as mutual as he reckons.
So, in all, it's what you'd expect: Blanchett is fierce, Jones is taciturn, James Horner's score is sweepingly maudlin, Howard's direction is competent but dull -- and the white guys smack the bad Indians down.