THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There’s a lot of discussion going on in film music circles these days about the direction the art is taking, and a lot of it stems from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar win for their score for The Social Network last year. Amongst many mainstream film critics, Reznor and Ross’s ambient drones are seen as ushering a newer, better way of scoring films, one that moves away from the “schmaltzy emotional manipulation” written by the likes of John Williams and James Horner, and instead embraces a cold, clinical musical style that is more akin to sound effects than traditional film music. In his review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Variety film critic Justin Chang said the score “blends dread with driving momentum, establishing a richly unsettling mood with recurring dissonances, eerie wind chimes and pulsating reverb effects”. In his simultaneously-published review of War Horse, he criticized the film for “a cloying strain of bucolic whimsy driven by John Williams’ pushy score”, so you see what we’re up against.
Unsurprisingly, my personal opinion is directly opposed to Chang’s. In an interview I gave to film music journalist Tom Hoover for his book Soundtrack Nation in 2010, I said “I understand that not all films require big, bold themes, and that there is a definite place for understatement, but you have to remember that film music, at its core, is all about emotion. I think it was Alfred Newman who said that 80% of the emotion you feel while watching a film is directly attributable to the music, so it stands to reason that if the music is being intentionally diminished to the point where you can’t tell whether it’s music or not, then you’re not going to get the same emotional reaction from the film.”
Of course, a film like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t require a great deal of orchestral histrionics. It’s a dark, brutal story of murder and violence set in the snowy wastes of northern Sweden. Based on the exceptionally popular novel by the late Stieg Larsson, the film stars Daniel Craig as investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who is hired by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, some 40 years previously. Meanwhile, punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has been hired by another company to monitor Mikael’s activity, and contacts Mikael when she solves some of the puzzles that Mikael could not; working together, the unlikely pair find out more about the Vanger family than Henrik intended, involving generations of corruption and murder.
Trent Reznor has, of course, been the recipient of a great deal of praise and acclaim for his work with his industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and rightly so: they were a groundbreaking group in their time, and I like a great many of their songs. Atticus Ross has been Reznor and NIN’s producer for many years, and as such also deserves our respect and acclaim. Unfortunately, much like The Chemical Brothers and their score for Hanna earlier this year, the pair have virtually no understanding of the narrative requirements of film music, the subtleties and nuances of which seem to be completely beyond them. Hanna, of course, was named Best Score of 2011 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association – of which our friend, the aforementioned Justin Chang, is secretary.
In the film, Reznor and Ross’s score veers between understated nothingness and outright inappropriateness. In one scene set in an apartment building, one of the characters walks past a man using a buffer to polish the floor, and almost immediately Reznor’s music begins to mimic the sound of the buffer, for no apparent reason, and continues to do so for several pointless minutes. Elsewhere, in a scene set in an office conference room, Reznor underscores the important expositional dialogue with a low, irritating hum and a series of inexplicable electronic bleeps, which took me completely out of the film, to the point where I looked up at the cinema’s speakers to check whether they were broken and emitting smoke (it’s heard on the album in “People Lie All the Time”).
When the score isn’t jarringly distracting, it’s virtually inaudible or indistinguishable from the film’s sound effects, begging the question of why the music is there in the first place. I would argue that if the score does nothing to enhance the emotion of the film because it’s either too low in the sound mix, or is written in such a way that it’s virtually indistinguishable from source music and sound effects, then what purpose does the score serve? What is its basic function? If you can’t hear it, and can’t feel it, why is it there?
On CD, in general terms, the score is little more than a series of ambient drones, overlaid with various industrial sound effects and staccato rhythms – de-tuned piano chords, plucked bass notes, and the like. The six-track promo released by Reznor earlier in the year includes the cues “Hidden in Snow”, “People Lie All the Time”, “What If We Could?”, “Oraculum”, “Please Take Your Hand Away” and “Under the Midnight Sun”. Running for just over half an hour, it provides a satisfactory overview of pretty much everything the score has to offer for anyone interested in seeing what all the fuss is about. The three hour complete score released on Reznor’s personal label, Null Corporation, is barely tolerable, and should be reserved only for those who actually enjoyed the score in context (i.e., masochists) or the hard of hearing.
To move away from tongue-in-cheek flippancy, the album does have some cues of note. The cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen Orzelek of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which was remixed by Reznor and Ross and plays over the film’s outstanding opening title sequence, is excellent, and stands as the musical high point of both film and CD, with its location-specific lyrics and primal scream chorus. Similarly, the cover version of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” by How To Destroy Angels features a soulful vocal performance by the group’s lead singer, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, that is also very good.
A few of the 37 score cues do merit some mention for a brief musical moment of worth: the opening “She Reminds Me Of You” has a child-like metallic motif that jingles in a bizarre, almost Christmassy way over a synth drone; “Pinned and Mounted” has an insistent, urgent percussion rhythm that underscores the terrible ordeal Lisbeth endures at the hands of her guardian; “What If We Could?” and “I Can’t Take It Any More” reprise the chilly piano/celesta motif in a cue of unexpected tonal quality, the latter with a female vocal effect by Maandig down in the mix; “A Thousand Details” and “Great Bird of Pray” have a roaring electric guitar that adds to the contemporary setting, as well as Lisbeth’s own musical tastes.
Elsewhere on the album, “An Itch” pits a detuned piano beat against a bed of pulsating synth rhythms and squeaky industrial dance-music effects in a way that is s unexpectedly engaging; “A Pause for Reflection”, “While Waiting”, “Millennia” and “A Pair of Doves” work chimes, bells and the female vocalist back into the equation, giving the score an isolated, chilly demeanor. “The Seconds Drag” mimics a ticking clock, “Parallel Timeline with Alternate Outcome” and “Revealed in the Thaw” feature the briefest semblances of an actual theme performed on a solo piano – two of the score’s few melodic high spots – while the driving “Infiltrator” has a high energy rhythm that at times is quite engaging, despite the 1980s computer game sound effects that appear half way through the track.
Beyond these few moments, though, the score is for the most part worthless, providing little more than various percussive rhythms and sub-industrial drones that go on and on and on over the course of three mind-numbing hours. It’s not that I can’t tolerate scores that are predominantly synth-based – many of my recent reviews dispel that myth. It’s more that the almost total lack of structure, depth, or actual musical intellectual language flies in the face of everything I love about film music. Praising scores like this, which are superficial by design, is an insult to all those composers who have spent years honing their craft, learning technique and orchestration and counterpoint and harmony, and who don’t get the acclaim or reward they so deserve. You only have to think about the scores written by David Fincher’s previous musical collaborators for his earlier films – Howard Shore on Se7en and The Game, Elliot Goldenthal on Alien 3, even David Shire on Zodiac – to get a sense of what kind of a score this film could have had. Orchestral and thematic and tonal doesn’t have to mean happy and pretty; dark, brutal, brooding, menacing music perfect for Lisbeth Salander could very easily have come from the pen of any of these men, and the music would have had a much more rich and fulfilling compositional language at the same time.
Even Reznor’s composing process is radically different from the norm: whereas most composers will write music with a specific scene in mind, tailoring it to fit the emotional needs of the film at any given time, referring backwards and forwards to musical points elsewhere in the movie to create a tapestry that links concepts, characters and locations together, Reznor presents his director with “big chunks that are three-or eight-minute suites. They go from here and travel around the corner and go underground and come back up and wind up over there. We do not have 30 15-second beats of sound.” While other composers have written music in this way before – notably Gustavo Santaollala on Brokeback Mountain and Hans Zimmer on Inception – Reznor’s approach really crystallizes what I feel is wrong with his scores. He’s not really writing film music; he’s writing a series of instrumental textures that just happen to accompany a movie, and which are needle-dropped into place by the director whenever he thinks he needs music, with no regard for any conceptual specificity, no thought about the ‘bigger picture’, no structure, and no way of giving the audience any cues as to the emotional intent of the scene.
This obsession with not spoon-feeding the audience emotional content via music is one of the most bizarre and misguided opinions of recent years; film is all about audience manipulation, making them empathize with the characters on screen. Directors have no qualms about manipulating the audience’s emotions by, for example, using colored filters in the cinematography, or by using a quick-cut editing style, so why is the music singled out as being as a scapegoat for the Hollywood schmaltz machine? When I watch a movie or listen to its score, I WANT to be moved, to be scared, to be exhilarated, to feel the joyous rapture of love, and a million other emotions. That’s the whole point.
I didn’t want to turn this review into a rant against the direction contemporary film music is going, but I care deeply about this genre, and I couldn’t help it. I’ve spent half my life listening to, and loving, and championing this music and its composers, and to see it stripped down and under-valued in this way affects me on a personal level. With their Oscar win for The Social Network and the immense acclaim their score for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has received, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are clearly on the forefront of contemporary film scoring, and are likely to prove influential to other film makers in future who want to recapture the vibe and mainstream popularity they encompass. This disturbs me greatly, because it marginalizes and trivializes everything I have loved about film music for the past 20 years, shoving it into a box marked “old fashioned” and “sappy”. Call me elitist, call me snobbish, call me out of touch, I don’t care. I know what I love, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not it.
Buy the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Immigrant Song (written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, performed by Karen O with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) (2:47)
- She Reminds Me of You (4:25)
- People Lie All the Time (4:10)
- Pinned and Mounted (5:04)
- Perihelion (6:01)
- What If We Could? (4:08)
- With the Flies (7:41)
- Hidden in Snow (5:19)
- A Thousand Details (3:58)
- One Particular Moment (7:00)
- I Can’t Take It Anymore (1:48)
- How Brittle the Bones (1:49)
- Please Take Your Hand Away (6:00)
- Cut Into Pieces (4:03)
- The Splinter (2:32)
- An Itch (4:09)
- Hypomania (5:47)
- Under the Midnight Sun (7:01)
- Aphelion (3:33)
- You’re Here (3:29)
- The Same as the Others (3:08)
- A Pause for Reflection (4:11)
- While Waiting (2:17)
- The Seconds Drag (4:33)
- Later Into the Night (4:55)
- Parallel Timeline with Alternate Outcome (6:32)
- Another Way of Caring (7:02)
- A Viable Construct (3:15)
- Revealed in the Thaw (2:47)
- Millennia (1:19)
- We Could Wait Forever (4:21)
- Oraculum (8:31)
- Great Bird of Prey (5:19)
- The Heretics (5:20)
- A Pair of Doves (2:02)
- Infiltrator (7:03)
- The Sound of Forgetting (2:30)
- Of Secrets (3:25)
- Is Your Love Strong Enough? (written by Bryan Ferry, performed by How To Destroy Angels) (4:30)
Running Time: 173 minutes 59 seconds
Null Corporation 2 (2011)
Music composed, arranged and performed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Special vocal performances by Mariqueen Maandig. Recorded and mixed by Alan Moulder, Michael Patterson and Blumpy. Edited by Marie Ebbing and Jonathan Stevens. Album produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.