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The Missing
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 2003 / 78m

Based on Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride, Ron Howard’s 2003 western The Missing stars Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett as an estranged father and daughter who come together just as her own daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped.  It’s got all the ingredients to be a great film, but isn’t – there’s an excellent cast, stunning locations, a story with an epic sweep – it’s too pedestrian, the danger never feels particularly real, Howard seems to hold back from making it as gritty as it needs to be and the occasional Native American spiritualism is just too half-hearted (either leave it out, or push it all the way).

The best thing about the film is its marvellous James Horner score.  His collaboration with Ron Howard covered seven films over nearly two decades, including a couple of the finest the composer ever wrote, but this marked its end – reportedly because Horner himself said to Howard a few of the things I said in the opening paragraph.  Fortunately it didn’t stop him going all-out with his score, which possesses the great scope of the composer’s best scores for historical pieces, some rousing themes and at times an almighty swagger and sweep.

James Horner

James Horner

The score’s other facet (the feature that distinguishes it from Horner’s numerous other scores in a similar vein) is actually the first thing heard in the opening title piece “New Mexico, 1885” – Native American chanting, done fairly subtly and sitting comfortably alongside a fairly restrained version of the main theme, which has hints of Braveheart, performed at first by a kena flute which has a lovely timbre.  Then in “The Stranger” comes a familiar old Horner device (though at this point it hadn’t been heard for some time), a mysterious energy provided by a rhythmic underbed of pan flutes and/or shakuhachi, along with synth choir and a rising-and-falling theme for Samuel (Jones’s character) reminiscent of the same year’s Beyond Borders.  Its dreamy representation of the spiritual Jones character is spot-on.

The big thematic reveal comes in “Dawn to Dusk / The Riderless Horse”, an initial pastoral beauty giving way to a deliciously free-flowing, expansive melody as wide open as the scenery it plays under – it’s a classic Horner theme, enough to leave the listener with goosebumps.  As the piece develops the tone darkens, the material from the previous track is reprised but now with a more sinister feel and then the first action develops, in a hint of what’s to come later in the score, with an extended percussion section (reportedly including upended metal chairs) and grand horn statements.  After a suspenseful break in “A Dark and Restless Wind” (which features much keyboard writing, providing an ambient texture alongside the orchestra) we’re back to trademark Horner theatrics in the wonderful but brief “The Search Begins” with the reappearance of the main theme.

“Lilly’s Fate is in these Hands” (now there’s a James Horner track title) goes through a wealth of melodic ideas and a wide emotional range, from the tenderness of its opening section through some anxious suspense later on.  “The Brujo’s Storm – A Loss of Innocence” is a real powerhouse of a cue, the search theme and Samuel’s theme intertwining, the former gradually becoming ever grander, bubbling up to an epic section where it is belted out by the full orchestra with all that percussion and chanting.  We also hear the main theme and the pastoral theme in shorter bursts after that, along with some fresh melodic material that in the score’s latter portions has an elegiac feel to it.

More dark suspense follows in “Setting the Trap – Staying One Step Ahead” (keyboards, percussion, the main theme couched in a monochrome hue here); it’s much subtler in the atmospheric “A Curse of Ghosts”, in which the spiritualism is added (very slowly, it has to be said) in layers of chanting and percussion and a hypnotically repeating string figure.  It’s very effective but not in any way a disappointment when the orchestra returns in “A Rescue is Planned”, the theme heard this time for solo horn before being picked up by the whole orchestra but the lengthy piece does then fade back into rather noodling suspense.

In “Kayitah’s Death – The Soaring Hawk” an action-packed burst of the search theme is given a very powerful tragic feel which is deconstructed piece by piece before the spiritual chanting is given a rare opportunity to be heard on its own.  “Rescue and Breakout” is every bit as energetic and exciting as you would expect a James Horner track with that title to be, the heroic entrance of the main theme nothing less than a joy to behold.  The last half-minute or so is absolutely spectacular (if only the film had given him the chance to write an extended cue along those lines).

Sad but achingly beautiful arrangements of both main themes come next in “Profound Loss”, along with a brief but heartfelt solo flute version of the pastoral theme.  “An Insurmountable Hurdle” includes some frantic percussion, along with a device Horner uses several times in the second half of the score, a wolf-howl approximation from the shakuhachi.  Not surprisingly there’s an epic sixteen-minute finale cue, “The Long Ride Home”, in which the composer presents the score’s main themes in extended form along with some fresh action material (actually amongst the score’s biggest) – it’s really quite something, as these things so often were, the musical and dramatic architecture so well-constructed.

The Missing is largely a vivid and energetic score blessed with a very strong thematic core.  It’s the sort of film Horner did so well and at its best the album is a real belter.  Typically for the composer, it’s almost 80 minutes long and in truth some of the rather samey suspense material probably could have been left off without disturbing the predictably well-constructed narrative flow.  Still, no fan of the composer’s score for this type of film is going to do anything other than enjoy the vast majority of it.  It’s such a shame that this marked the end of one of the composer’s most musically-productive directorial collaborations but fortunately he did get to deliver so much in their seven films together.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Aidabaida (Reply) on Tuesday 2 August, 2016 at 23:01

    Will we get a review for Braveheart soon?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 2 August, 2016 at 23:45

      Aidabaida – don’t know how soon because I’m doing them in a somewhat random order but will definitely do it at some point – I’m still aiming to get through everything. (Spoiler alert – five stars.)

  2. Mickey (Reply) on Tuesday 2 August, 2016 at 23:18

    Eh, dude, there’s a star missing (hehe) right at the end…

  3. Tim Webb (Reply) on Wednesday 3 August, 2016 at 00:09

    James, Mickey caught your typo, that you accidentally only gave it four, when surely meant to put five. 🙂 Just joking too… Thanks for inviting us along on this wonderful (and sad) journey!

  4. Aidabaida (Reply) on Wednesday 3 August, 2016 at 00:11

    Braveheart has some really, really, really great themes and cues, but I can’t bring myself to give it five stars, just because of some tracks like “Revenge” that just don’t click with me. But it’s as strong as a four star rating as it gets.

    I think you should give a relisten to “The Amazing Spider-Man”. That, to me, is a five star Horner score 🙂 (And your review reads like a 5 star, though you only gave it four)

  5. Momo (Reply) on Wednesday 3 August, 2016 at 09:00

    I really gotta give this another listen.
    I dunno if I’d personally give this, Amazing Spider-Man or Braveheart a perfect score, but they all have lengthy periods of sheer genius in them.

  6. Aidabaida (Reply) on Wednesday 3 August, 2016 at 15:45

    One of Horner’s greatest talents would be to take a medium-sized theme and just work it and work it and work it for minutes on end, without ever sounding repetitive. Sometimes, when listening to “Rocketeer to the Rescue” and it plays the theme again, I have to wonder, “How is he playing this so many times, and yet I’m not bored with it at all?”

    So yeah, I agree, Momo, there are just long passages of bliss in Horner scores. He was somebody who didn’t hold back.

    My personal favorite Horner moment of all time is 1:54 into “I Want to Go Home – The Forbidden City” from “The Karate Kid”. From 1:54 – 2:35 is just….wow. As an aspiring composer myself, I’m just stunned.

  7. tiago (Reply) on Thursday 4 August, 2016 at 03:22

    Gee, I didn’t know that this movie was the reason why Horner and Howard never worked together again! And, although I like a good gossip about film music world :D, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Had Horner kept his thoughts about the movie to himself, he would probably get the chance to score the other Howard movies: Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons… I would love to see what would he do with this material.

  8. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Thursday 4 August, 2016 at 13:11

    Me too, Tiago, but to be honest I’m not sure I’d trade in the Zimmer/Howard/Dan Brown scores. They’re some of my favorite recent(ish) Zimmer scores and I’m pretty excited to hear what he does for Inferno.

    Unrelated note: I think this is the first review in the Horner odyssey where the rating actually went down (this used to be a **** 1/2, no?).

  9. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Saturday 6 August, 2016 at 00:25

    HORNER’S theme of love that bonded mother and daughter is powerfully emotive and just beautiful…but why did HORNER have to clone it as the love theme for Terence Malick’s ‘The New World’? The director was so infuriated by this duplicity, that he discarded most of HORNER’S music, replacing it with classical library music. The result was that the soundtrack on the movie [bits of HORNER being substituted by bits of Classical music] made no sense at all, and created confusion and disorientation that contributed to the film’s artistic malaise. The feud and tension and chaos between Malick and his composer almost caused HORNER to have a mental collapse. “I would not have been able to survive this project” was how HORNER described his reaction to the stress of working with Malick. The music as heard in the film could have been comparable to that Malick/MORRICONE masterpiece ‘Days of Heaven’. The CD for ‘The New World’ only features HORNER’S music and not, thankfully, the misguided selection compiled by Malick.

  10. Aidabaida (Reply) on Saturday 6 August, 2016 at 03:25

    @Andre: If you watch Horner’s TED Talk, it’s all dedicated basically to how frustrated it is for him that he’s not able to develop and repeat motifs in other scores without people getting mad at him. He’s talking about how he gets ideas that he wants to explore further in other scores, but they don’t let him.

    Obviously, he did it anyway.

  11. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Saturday 6 August, 2016 at 13:56

    Absolutely Aidabaida, I agree with HORNER’S frustration. MORRICONE says that if a theme haunts you, continually explore it in other scores until your’re satiated. But MORRICONE would create a Variant, and not an instantly recognizable Variation of that theme. Likewise DELERUE, except only once when he used the Baroque composer Vivaldi’s Largo note for note (from his Concerto in Re Major) as the Main Title and love theme [on at least three other cues] for the teen flick ‘A Little Romance’. Nowhere on Varese Sarabande’s liner notes does DELERUE acknowlege Vivaldi’s Largo…nor is it mentioned on the movie’s end Credits. A puzzle, as DELERUE always enthused about the composers of both the Renaissance and the Baroque periods and their influence on his musical style. Incidentally, DELERUE’S Oscar winning score for ‘A Little Romance’ is gorgeous.

  12. Kevin (Reply) on Tuesday 16 August, 2016 at 05:57

    This score is superb indeed and it was kind of disappointment that it doesn’t get the airing it deserves in the film. It brings home how old-school Horner was in his scoring. I miss him so much.