- 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.
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.