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Review by Brad Green:
Exactly 16 minutes and 12 seconds from its end, I began to realise the full merit of this score. That’s when the final, monumental cue starts. Until then moments of power are punctuated by longueurs of underscore, and a myriad of inventive timbres hint at gimmickry. In that final expansive track, however, every idea is brought together in a way that renders the preceding cues as details from a colossal painting. James Horner had an overarching vision for this score and he lets it evolve gradually, each piece of the jigsaw taking on new significance once we are aware of the wider picture.

Given that this is the soundtrack for a frontier film, that wider picture is of course a landscape. Horner has been exploring more than his share of these lately. The deserts of the Sudan for The Four Feathers; the turbulent ocean off Cape Cod for The Perfect Storm; the sprawling consciousness of John Forbes Nash in A Beautiful Mind. He has also been cementing a relationship with director Ron Howard. They first collaborated back in the mid-80s on Cocoon, and next year’s The Da Vinci Code will be their ninth film together.

In this instance, Howard has basically crafted a remake of The Searching, the seminal John Ford film considered to be the first “sophisticated” western, the first of the genre to venture beyond the usual stereotypes. Howard’s angle is to add a dimension of indigenous mysticism to the fundamental kidnap and pursuit story. For such a context, the score opens with the most obvious of what become multiple auxiliaries to the core orchestra. The typical Native American wailing sounds authentic but hardly an imaginative way to set out. Later, the archetypal chanting is supplemented by a much a deeper, earthier, more affecting vocalisation that sounds like it might be Inuit throat singing. 

Horner, who at times exhibits Hollywood’s greatest weakness for iterative motifs, makes a clear departure from his thematically dependant works here. He does have a strong central melody, stated delicately at the opening of the third cue on woodwind with harp accompaniment and then with the full nobility of the orchestra, but employs it sparingly throughout. More use, in fact, is made of a staccato wood-pipe ostinato that serves in the unusual capacity of a driving rhythm, much like a muted electric guitar riff in a pop song. It continues to add an underlying mystical air as the soundtrack broadens into an array of atmospheric and action cues. 

The great variety of percussion, which ranges from the Australian aboriginal boorea (a wooden slat at the end of the rope that whirrs as it’s whirled around) to metal chairs whacked with sticks, at first suggests novelty value, or perhaps the ironic attitude of Morricone’s spaghetti western classics. But further listening reveals a darker edge here, with Horner successfully combining the sense of a distant horizon with a close and suffocating anxiety. 

The frontier is explored with patience, and despite the tension that runs throughout the score, Horner pays heed to the fact that this is pursuit on horseback not helicopter. The multifaceted tonalities, rhythmic and melodic patterns unfold at a measured pace, exploding for moments of action and then being reigned in again. It is a confident approach that pays off in the stunning final track, where the synergy of the preceding ideas is revealed and it becomes clear that this is no less than a grandly conceived soundtrack. 

Published May 20, 2004

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TITLE: The Missing
SCORE: James Horner 

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