Christmas comes early for fans of James Horner this year. Four soundtracks by one composer released within a couple of months is not something that happens a lot. Better enjoy it while it lasts, then. Which isn't that hard considering the high quality of Horner's output this fall. Beyond Borders, released the same week, is one of the most lovely scores of 2003, and one of the more interesting ones in Horner's career. And The Missing gives us music reminiscent of the composer's excellent scores from the 90's, such as Legends of the Fall and The Mask of Zorro. Horner's latest epic scores have ranged from rather good (The Four Feathers) to disappointing (Windtalkers) and it's therefore refreshing to see that the composer still knows how to do it.
The Missing, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett, takes place in New Mexico towards the end of the 19th Century. It's a film which deals with a horrifying loss and the search of a kidnapped daughter and her kidnapper so Horner's score is pretty dark and dramatic. When it comes to scope and structure - and, to some degree, sound - it's possible to hear similarities with Legends of the Fall, composed back in 1994, but The Missing is a much more serious score and doesn't have the kind of simple block chords or the amount of over the top melodrama which made Legends of the Fall a great listen on CD, but at times a rather annoying element in the film (but it's worth mentioning that the kind of score Horner wrote for Legends of the Fall is the kind of score the sentimental film needed). It does, however, share the Native American influences and the broad, lush themes. Horner uses the shakuhachi in many cues - often as a rhytmic part of the ensemble, but also as a melodic instrument - and there are appearances of Native American chanting, similar to what the composer wrote for Thunderheart. And Legend of the Falls.
The Missing is a complex score and it takes time to really take it all in. It's dark, with a great deal of suspense and action which gets a little overbearing at times. Horner's current way to score action sequences is perhaps a little too noisy for my liking and I really missed the kind of action music he wrote for Titanic, the already mentioned Legends of the Fall and The Mask of Zorro. Similar to Beyond Borders, Horner uses synths to spice up the more ambient, underscore focused parts of the score.
The use of chairs as percussive instruments is actually less interesting than one might think. They're not that noticeable. Mostly because Horner uses them exactly like he uses the rest of his armada of percussion. They blend in rather well. A little too well, perhaps. What's the point in using chairs as instruments if the result isn't unique and refreshing?
Even if the themes are quite good, some of them are sometimes really close to quoting parts of previous Horner themes. They all sound a little familiar, and although it's not that easy to point out the source, this gets disturbing after a while. He never crosses the line, though, but it gets damn close a couple of times. The main theme is your typical sweeping Horner theme, first heard in the third track, "Dawn to Dusk; The Riderless Horse" performed by lush strings and ethnic flute. It's really quite beautiful and it shows up several times, joined by occasional orchestral swells. It also closes the CD in a wonderful, majestic version in "The Long Ride Home", which is one of those long finale and end credits cues Horner likes to do. Nice stuff and one of the best tracks on the soundtrack.
The Missing, judged by its score, is the kind of movie that Horner tend to overscore at times. Wall to wall music rarely works, in my opinion and there is actually such a thing as too much music. Sony Classical has, as usual, given us a long release - 77 minutes - and I'm wondering if it's not actually too long. It frankly gets a little boring at times and I find it hard to listen to the entire CD from start to finish. But skip a couple of underscore tracks and you have a really excellent, surprisingly dark and entertaining CD. It mostly sounds very familiar but The Missing is a good, solid score by James Horner. Four weak stars.