As Maggie, a frontier woman with two daughters and a murky occupation as a "healer," Cate Blanchett does some decent work. We first see her in the outhouse and then in a rather grueling scene as she removes a rotting tooth from an elderly woman. When one of her ranch hands and current lover (Aaron Eckhart) takes in a drifter for a meal, Maggie discovers that the mysterious man called Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) is her long-absent father.
He'll get his chance to make amends when Maggie's older daughter Lilly (the impressive Evan Rachel Wood of Thirteen) is kidnapped by a spooky and ugly-as-all-hell Apache witch (Eric Schweig) and placed in a harem of young women to be sold into Mexican slavery. Maggie needs Jones' tracking abilities out on the great frontier, and it's a good bet they will bond before the movie is through, not without the requisite bickering and "Where were you when I needed you?" proclamations, of course.
For the first half of the film, Howard seems very much in command of his movie. Maggie's discovery of the kidnapping's grisly aftermath is a chiller--one of the better sequences Howard has ever crafted. As Maggie and Jones set off on Lilly's trail, there is a true sense of anticipation that their journey might be a thrilling one. After some initial thrills, everything begins to come apart.
For starters, while 10-year-old Jenna Boyd as younger daughter Dot is a startlingly good actress, the film's excuse for taking her along on the rescue mission is bullshit. She's just there so the film can have not one, but two young girls in peril. Also, it just doesn't seem to be a good idea to interrupt your otherwise bare-boned, based-in-reality Western thriller with a dumb-assed diversion into the supernatural. When the witch comes across a patch of Maggie's hair, he casts a curse on her, a curse that can only be dispelled by Jones'Apache incantations and Dot reading calmly from the Bible. This is unintentionally hilarious.
I know Jones' character has been living with the Apaches, and I know that would probably result in some long hair, but the make-up department screwed up this job. Decked out in extensions that would make Britney Spears envious, Jones just looks silly with his mane, and it's hard to get past it. The hair is too beautiful and clean, as if one of Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing ancestors is running around after him with a brush, taking care of all those nasty snarls and knots brought on by the rigors of frontier life. They should've thrown some braids or motor oil in the hair to give it that lived-in look. He looks like a hair model whose face quit a long time ago, but his tresses continue to stun and amaze.
Perhaps a story featuring Native American villains such as this didn't need to be told. Howard strains to keep everything politically correct, with heroic Native Americans to balance out the villainous ones and the Apache witch who is sick enough to tear out a man's heart, but refrains from sexually assaulting his hostages. When you have to work that hard to keep things balanced, your film starts to attain a doctored, false vibe. Howard would've been better off to just avoid such an unnecessarily ugly story altogether and make a sequel to Splash!