For a director who so often plays it safe (Splash; Backdraft; Apollo 13), Ron Howard raised a great many eyebrows with his gritty and often nasty Western "The Missing" (adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel "The Last Ride"). It may not have been a critical or box office success, although Cate Blanchett's weathered lead performance was praised, but it's undoubtedly one of the director's finest films - a gripping period suspense thriller that casts an eye on a fascinating period in American history while featuring one of the most unpleasant big-screen villains in a long while. In the film, Blanchett plays Maggie Gilkeson, ranch owner and mother to two daughters in 19th century New Mexico. When her long estranged father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) re-emerges on the scene after a long absence, Maggie spurns his presence, still bitter about the time Samuel abandoned his family when she was young. But then her eldest daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) is captured by a sinister Apache Brujo (Eric Schweig), and both Maggie and Samuel must put their differences aside and save the girl before she is sold into slavery.
It's an ambitious story, although the attempts at contemporary revisionism (particularly with regard to Schweig's villainous Native American shaman) come off as slightly undercooked. Nevertheless, the star turns from Blanchett and Jones are superb; Schweig himself is truly repulsive as the baddie; production values are wonderfully authentic in recreating the American wilderness; and Ken Kaufman's intelligent, layered script functions both as a gripping chase movie and a portrait of a deeply conflicted period in American history.
It also resulted in James Horner's finest score in years. The broad canvas of Legends of the Fall earmarked him as Hollywood's go-to composer for lush melodrama, but, in the years immediately prior to The Missing, such opportunities proved sparse. Luckily, Horner's long-standing relationship with Ron Howard and his obvious flair for lavish historical drama resulted in a magnificent return to form. There's no doubt Horner is at his best when taking the listener on a sweeping musical journey, and few of his recent scores display this as well as The Missing.
"New Mexico, 1885" opens in intoxicating, spine-tingling fashion, Horner laying both his ethnic and thematic cards on the table in the shape of eerie Native American chanting and the sweeping string/wind based theme that will eventually form the backbone of the score. In the best possible tradition, it not only works as a musical opening but also as a thrilling opening to the long lost frontier world of the film. Although there are striking similarities between the theme and the likes of Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, there are just enough variations within it to stave off the accusation of self-plagiarism frequently levelled at the composer. Later on, "The Search Begins"; "Lily's Fate Is In These Hands"; and, especially, "A Rescue is Planned" and "Profound Loss" take it to remarkably moving heights.
Moreover, it's the incidental material and authentic instrumental nuances that make The Missing a truly memorable and engrossing score. "The Stranger" ushers in a breathy Horner favourite: the Japanese shakuhachi wood flute, implying the Native American characteristics Jones' character has accumulated during his absence. "Dawn to Dusk: The Riderless Horse" (a classic, descriptive track title, typical of the composer), marks the first truly magnificent statement of the main theme, as expansive as the New Mexico vistas it accompanies, full of a rich, melancholy beauty. The latter half of the track goes in two stages: first moving into creepy eerie territory complete with synth choir, bells and more shakuhachi as Maggie realises to her horror that Lily has been kidnapped; then introducing the action staples of the score with various slapping and rattle effects (including fold-up chairs being hit with sticks, reportedly!)
Throughout, Horner's acute ear for authentic cultural sounds is an invigorating delight. "A Dark and Restless Wind"; the lengthy "Brujo's Storm – A Loss of Innocence"; and "A Curse of Ghosts" bring a host of ravishing musical elements together that open the listener up to the cultural divides on display in the film, including the aforementioned shakuhachi and chanting, plus strange whirring effects. Often, the theme itself is pitted plaintively against the creeping dread of the material representing the shaman mysticism, adding further layers of richness to the score. The wolf-like wind effects in "A Rescue Is Planned" are especially noteworthy.
The musical journey Horner takes us on is a remarkable one, and this is perhaps his greatest gift as a composer (although, as mentioned, not all films give him the chance to do so effectively). Everything is structured with a sense of coherency and internal logic, from the increasingly fraught nature of the main theme to the action sequences that emerge later on as Blanchett and Jones eventually catch up with the aggressors. It's worth noting that Horner never lets these tracks play out in entirely fluid fashion, adding an appropriate degree of rattly nervousness to the plight of the characters. "Setting the Trap – Staying One Step Ahead" serves as a reminder of Horner's abilities in unusually rhythmic arenas, blending tapping and synths together fluidly. The dramatic climax meanwhile, from "Kayitah's Death" through to "An Insurmountable Hurdle", brings in the urgency of the full orchestra, adding powerful dramatic weight to the action sequences.
And then we get to that moment cherished by all film score fans: the classic James Horner climax that wraps all the score's principal ideas together in extraordinary fashion. The enormous 16 minute "Long Road Home" is one of the composer's greatest achievements, moving from thrilling Aliens-inspired action music (complete with more of the chilling Brujo material) to a simply magnificent series of statements of the main theme in its second half.
No contemporary composer is as successful at developing his music to such a length without compromising the listener's emotional involvement. As the haunting vocals see the track out, ending us where we began, we can palpably feel the sense of journey's end, almost as if we're moving from one period of history into another; a remarkable achievement. It's the perfect way to end a truly superb score, one that is certainly more restrained than the Horner we loved in the 90s, but with enough of those familiar characteristics and plenty of bracing new material. "The Missing" is one of the composer's most tremendous efforts, and well worth seeking out.