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COLD PURSUIT – George Fenton

February 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the late 1990s – which, to my shock and dismay, is now almost 20 years ago – I truly thought George Fenton was on the verge of becoming one of the truly great Hollywood A-lister composers. He had already picked up a handful of Oscar nominations for scores like Gandhi and Cry Freedom, Dangerous Liaisons and The Fisher King; he scored a string of popular successes, like Groundhog Day, Final Analysis, and You’ve Got Mail; and then he unleashed a 1-2-3 punch of magnificent romantic drama scores with Ever After, Dangerous Beauty, and Anna and the King at the very end of the millennium. This, coupled with his small-screen success scoring acclaimed nature documentaries for the BBC such as Blue Planet, seemed to indicate that he would be a major player for years to come. However, inexplicably, and despite and occasional sporadic box office hit, the prestige assignments began to dry up. He is still working, of course, but the level of acclaim and visibility he once enjoyed has diminished enormously, and I am at a loss to explain why, because he clearly still has the talent and creativity he always had.

His latest film, Cold Pursuit, is the first film he has scored that has made any sort of theatrical impact in quite some time, probably since The Bounty Hunter in 2010; it’s also the first score of his to enjoy an album release since The Lady in the Van in 2015. The film is a revenge action-thriller with a bizarre thread of black comedy running through it. It’s directed by Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland, and is a remake of his own 2014 film Kraftidioten. It stars Liam Neeson as Nels Coxman, a snow plough driver from a remote ski resort city in Colorado, whose life is shattered when his son dies of an apparent drug overdose. Knowing that his son was not an addict, Nels is unsatisfied with the police conclusion, and eventually discovers that he was in fact murdered. Bent on vengeance and intent on tracking down the killers, Nels embarks on a killing spree, gradually making his way up the food chain of criminals until he intentionally provokes a turf war between two rival drug cartels. He’s a man with a particular set of skills, two of which are keeping your roads clear and beating people to death with his bare hands.

The film co-stars Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, and Emmy Rossum, and is a violent exploration of grief and the need for revenge which leaves gallons of blood on the snow covered mountain slopes; it’s also bizarrely funny – sometimes inappropriately so – as director Moland and screenwriter Frank Baldwin allow an absurd streak of surreal comedy to run through the entire project. This gives the movie an uneven tone, but also makes it very entertaining, not unlike some of the carnage-filled comedies the Coen Brothers make.

George Fenton’s score is similarly uneven, but also has moments where it is greatly entertaining too. To boil it down to its basics, you can describe the score as sounding like his version of Carter Burwell’s Fargo. It has a very unique instrumental palette that prominently features solo violin, what sounds like a balalaika or some kind of ethnic guitar, and ethereal woodwinds, alongside a stripped-down string orchestra and a large amount of synthesized electronic sound design curated by English producer and re-mixer Dan Carey.

The score’s most prominent thematic idea is for Nels and his trusty snow plough, and is first heard in the opening cue, “Snow Plough”. It’s built around an oddly playful melody for balalaika, which has a strangely upbeat and whimsical tone, and creates an unusual and unexpected disconnect with what one would expect the score for a film like this to sound like. As I mentioned before, it reminds me very much of the sort of approach Carter Burwell took with his score for Fargo, balancing a little bit of light comedy within a very dark overarching story. The theme tends to follow Nels around when he is behind the wheel of the plough, irrespective of what he is actually doing in the plough at the time; in “To the Ravine,” for example, he is dumping the body of his first victim, while in “The Plough and The Jeep” he is following a car down a highway banked with 20-foot snowdrifts, intent on murdering the car’s driver. Fenton cleverly offers a few interesting variations on the theme, often adding in Thomas Newman-esque marimbas that give it a feel similar to the score for American Beauty, and even arranging the theme like a pseudo-Argentine tango, as if Nels is dancing with his prey. The Thomas Newman influences are apparent in several later cues too, including “Kidnapped” and “Come and Get It”.

The second main thematic idea is first heard in the “Cold Pursuit (Main Title),” and is an energetic, spiky, thrusting piece which again revisits the balalaika sound heard in the Snow Plough theme, but augments it with electronic sound design elements that give it a contemporary edge. This combination of sounds continues through several subsequent cues, notably “News of Kyle” where the incessant ticking insinuates that Nels is a time bomb waiting to go off, the pensive and dramatic “”A Son for a Son” which features the theme in a slowed down version, and “I’m The Messenger”.

The final recurring thematic idea is an abstract one featuring faraway-sounding woodwind ideas that echo through the mountains, chilly piano textures that are as crisp as snow, and solo violin elements, soft, but just a little distant. I can’t really explain what exactly the theme represents, other than a sort of all-encompassing wistfulness about what is happening to this beautiful place, and the people within it. Cues like “Citizen of The Year” feature it prominently, and there are a couple of interesting instrumental diversions too, like the introduction of a twanging Jew’s Harp texture in “It Just Did”. Interestingly, this theme also tends to accompany White Bull, a Native American drug lord who is just as ruthless as his rival, but also seems to have a recurring pang of regret about how he has lost his way in life; cues like “Eye to Eye,” “It’s About Your Son,” and “Lost Culture” all seem to speak to this unexpectedly profound side to a villainous character.

However, where one or more of these elements are not present, the score tends to lose its way a little, often devolving into a stream of dark, brooding, low-key electronica that veers from being aggressive and abrasive, to being so understated that it really doesn’t say anything of note. One or two cues do feature some interesting moments – the unexpected dance music beats in “Speedo,” or the pulsing action rhythms in “Scouting” and “Closing In,” for example – and long time Fenton fans may recognize some specific sounds that hark all the way back to some of the scores from the 1980s like The Company of Wolves. Unfortunately, a lot of this electronic music tends to get very repetitive; it’s not especially complex, and not especially engaging, and has very little to recommend for those looking for more sophisticated writing.

The finale of the score – and the film – occurs in “Turf War at Nels,” which underscores the final showdown between the drug cartels outside Nels’s snow plough repair garage. Although the bulk of the cue is a violent collision of driving electronic rhythms, howling guitars, and string ostinati, Fenton makes fascinating use of the ethnic flutes, allowing them to run atop, across, and through all the feverish throbbing, while slowly building the piece to a heavy string-led conclusion. After a final solo violin lament in “The Aftermath,” lonely and cold, and a final reprise of the Snow Plough theme in “Doing My Job,” the “Cold Pursuit (End Titles)” wraps things up with a 6-minute suite of the score’s most important elements.

There is some really interesting stuff going on in Cold Pursuit, and a lot of it is completely unexpected, especially considering the nature of the film and the type of music that usually accompanies them. It shows that George Fenton is a composer who is still creative, and still capable of thinking outside the box, and that makes me happy indeed. More than anything, I hope it reminds producers and directors that he is still out there, available to work, and can add a great deal of class, compositional intelligence, and emotional depth to any project you care to put in front of him. Although I can see how many people might be dissuaded by some of the less engaging electronic elements – they do drag a little – I personally found that there was more than enough interesting music here to make this a worthwhile exploration.

Buy the Cold Pursuit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Snow Plough (1:30)
  • Citizen of The Year (1:55)
  • Cold Pursuit (Main Title) (0:37)
  • News of Kyle (1:19)
  • The Funeral – Turning Away (1:17)
  • Speedo (1:24)
  • To the Ravine (1:18)
  • Limbo Checks Out (2:15)
  • The Plough and The Jeep (2:06)
  • It Just Did (2:47)
  • Eye to Eye (1:08)
  • Iced (0:40)
  • Wingman (1:19)
  • A Son for a Son (1:40)
  • Scouting (1:11)
  • It’s About Your Son (1:19)
  • I’m The Messenger (1:23)
  • Kidnapped (0:46)
  • Come and Get It (1:00)
  • Lost Culture (0:57)
  • Closing In (4:51)
  • Turf War at Nels (2:36)
  • The Aftermath (1:48)
  • Doing My Job (1:26)
  • Cold Pursuit (End Titles) (6:49)
  • Speedo (Remix) (3:25)

Running Time: 48 minutes 48 seconds

Varese Sarabande (2019)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by Samuel Pegg. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Graham Sutton. Album produced by George Fenton.

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