Ron Howard has never directed a Western, but you can't accuse him of being a stranger to the genre. ''I was in John Wayne's last Western, 'The Shootist,''' says the 49-year-old Oscar winner. ''I've long been an aficionado. And yet every time I would read [scripts], I'd always passed on them because they're too familiar. This one didn't feel familiar at all. Authentic, yes. But not traditional.''
It certainly isn't traditional for a Western to have a woman at the heart of its story. Cate Blanchett plays Maggie Gilkeson, a tough frontier woman with two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd), a live-in ranch-hand lover (Aaron Eckhart), and a sinister, long-absent father (Tommy Lee Jones) who materializes out of the New Mexican wilderness after decades spent living among the Apache. And despite what Howard describes as ''an exotic action plot'' focusing on the kidnapping of one of the Gilkeson daughters, Blanchett says the director encouraged her to think of the movie as ''one long father-daughter scene.''
''Female characters in these sorts of adventure dramas in the past have been more like symbols, symbols of civilization or depravity,'' observes Howard. ''I just feel this story is much more modern. It's not a nostalgic revisiting of a classic genre. It's about a set of circumstances that are powerful and dramatic in any era.''
Of course, there's such a thing as too much authenticity: The Native American tribal elders brought in to advise on the black magic used by the film's chief villain, a rogue shaman named Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), urged caution in dealing with such potent charms. ''They wouldn't give us the really powerful chants. They just refused,'' recalls Howard. ''So they gave us approximations that wouldn't bring any sort of bad luck on anyone. It reminded me of when we were making 'Ransom,' and the FBI wouldn't give us the real kidnapping and abduction techniques because they didn't want anybody to use them.''
The Killer Moment In the woods, Blanchett comes upon a slowly twisting deerskin bag full of...diced cowboy.