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THE MISSING – James Horner

November 28, 2003 Leave a comment Go to comments

themissingOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

After sitting out the entire summer of 2003, James Horner has exploded back onto the scene with four new scores in less than two months. The third of the four (the others being Radio, Beyond Borders and the Oscar-tipped House of Sand and Fog) is The Missing, a truly remarkable work which brings back wonderful memories of classic Horner scores from the early 1990s. And, although the stylistic elements of a dozen or so scores from his past are readily identifiable, in many ways it’s like revisiting an old friend. Yes, I have criticized other composers for doing the exact same thing in the past, but with Horner, it’s like coming home.  Directed by Ron Howard and based on the novel “The Last Ride” by Thomas Eidson, The Missing stars Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Jones, a father who returns to his home in 19th-century New Mexico, hoping to reconcile with his estranged adult daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett). However, when Maggie’s young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by a psychopathic leader of a cult with mysterious powers, who has been kidnapping young girls all over the American south west, father and daughter must put aside their differences and work together to get her back.

Broadly speaking, The Missing is an amalgam of Legends of the Fall, Thunderheart and Braveheart – mixing together the lush melodic and thematic elements with a healthy dose of occasionally quite violent and tumultuous percussion, and spiritually strong Native American vocals. The first thing you notice about The Missing is that, unlike many recent Horner scores, this one is “quintessential”, in the sense that many of the elements that endeared him to so many people have returned in abundance, from the instrumental use of woodwinds and the Japanese shakuhachi flute, to the rolling romanticism of his main theme. Horner has many harsh critics, most of whom complain that he is limited in terms of his musical ideas, but I’m beginning to find that, as his career progresses, he’s finding stylistics that work, and which identify him as the author. It’s a trait that all composers ultimately develop… its just that in Horner’s case, the stylistics are so strong, it renders him liable to criticism which, I am beginning to feel, is unjustified. He’s obviously doing it on purpose, honing his motifs and revisiting past themes.

The Missing has a rather moody and mysterious opening, all low-key orchestral lines with vocals and breathy woodwinds, which eventually break out during the third track, “Dawn to Dusk/The Riderless Horse” where, after a few moments of build-up, Horner’s main theme enters majestically for the first time. A familiar Horner crossbreed, with stylistic echoes from several other scores, it is nevertheless an engaging and beautiful melody, and includes just enough new twists to keep it fresh. The theme is performed with accompaniment from plaintive pan pipes and a kena flute in ‘The Search Begins’, transformed into a strident action sequence in ‘The Brunjo’s Storm/A Loss of Innocence’, becomes a heroic, hopeful brass anthem in ‘A Rescue is Planned’, and adopts an air of plaintive melancholy during ‘Profound Loss’.

Thereafter, the score is a combination of recapitulations of theme, mixed in with Horner’s familiar brand of balls-out action, and moments of native spirituality which act as a leitmotif for the Indian trackers Jones’s character employs to help find his granddaughter. The vocals, which recall similar effects used in Thunderheart and, more recently, Windtalkers, actually work better in this setting than in either of the previous scores, with a more limited use of electronics, and a less tumultuous orchestral accompaniment. Notable cues include ‘A Curse of Ghosts’ and ‘The Soaring Hawk, in which the vocals are augmented by subtle synths and pan-flutes, creating a mesmerizing mood.

The action, on the whole, tends to be of the nervous, rattly style, making use of lots of percussive effects (including, according to reports, metal chairs being hit by big sticks!), handclaps and stomps á la The Mask of Zorro, and a couple of marvelous snare-driven ostinatos that allow the action to keep moving. Although the sum effect of cues such as ‘The Riderless Horse’, ‘Setting the Trap/Staying One Step Ahead’ and ‘The Insurmountable Hurdle’, is generally unsettling and could be seen by some to be unfocused and chaotic, the intricacy of the interplay, the inventiveness of the rhythms and percussive textures, and the driving motion the cues create, cannot be ignored. ‘Kayitah’s Death’ and ‘Rescue and Breakout’ break the mold by adding the lushness of the orchestra into the mix, reminding us just what a good action composer Horner can be. The 16-minute finale, ‘The Long Ride Home’ is one of those epic end credits pieces Horner likes to write, and as is often the case it runs the gamut of styles, from overwhelming action sequences that echo Aliens, to mighty performances of the central theme

There are a couple of interesting instrumental touches worth noting: in addition to the shakuhachi and the chairs, Horner makes use of the unusual boorea, or bullroarer (an Australian Aboriginal instrument, with a stone attached to the end of a rope, which makes a whirring “wind” noise when you swing it around your head) in ‘A Dark and Restless Wind’ and the latter half of ‘A Rescue is Planned’, and interpolates a set of the threatening horn triplets that lend a touch of menace to the opening moments of “Lily’s Fate Is In These Hands”. Occasionally, Horner also uses what sounds like an Inuit throat-singer to add bass to some of the vocal cues, while his percussion ensemble includes a vast array of bells, rattles, shakers and slappers.

Everyone knows that James Horner is my favorite composer and that, with him, I am prone to a little hyperbole, but this really is his best score of the new millennium so far. Bicentennial Man, The Grinch, Perfect Storm, Windtalkers, A Beautiful Mind, The Four Feathers… they all had their moments of excellence, but none of them truly captured my imagination and my emotion the way Horner’s early 1990s scores did. The Missing is a welcome return to those days, leaving a warm glow and a nostalgic feeling that, after a couple of so-so years, Horner could be back to his best.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • New Mexico, 1885 (2:26)
  • The Stranger (3:51)
  • Dawn to Dusk/The Riderless Horse (4:22)
  • Dark and Restless Wind (3:18)
  • The Search Begins (2:15)
  • Lilly’s Fate is in These Hands (6:43)
  • The Brujo’s Storm/A Loss of Innocence (8:30)
  • Setting the Trap/Staying One Step Ahead (3:55)
  • A Curse of Ghosts (4:43)
  • A Rescue is Planned (6:18)
  • Kayitah’s Death/The Soaring Hawk (4:24)
  • Rescue and Breakout (3:23)
  • Profound Loss (3:22)
  • An Insurmountable Hurdle (3:45)
  • The Long Ride Home (16:12)

Running Time: 77 minutes 35 seconds

Sony Classical SK-93093 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by James Horner, J.A.C. Redford and Randy Kerber. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Album produced by James Horner and Simon Rhodes.

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