I have to wonder if my review of the soundtrack for The Social Network—the last time Nine Inch Nails exiles Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross teamed up with film director David Fincher—was colored by my never watching the film, and therefore never hearing the music in situ. Frankly, I have a list as long as both arms of movies I’ve never seen, and it’s not like Reznor and Ross’ music was easy to digest—a glorified rock mixtape, the way most soundtracks get compiled nowadays. I think their work for Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo still has some problems left over from their first collaboration, but I can tell it really works when hearing it in context.
A good portion of Fincher’s catalog (Seven, Fight Club, The Game) deals with the tweaking of information and motivation. Similarly, Reznor and Ross seem dead set on subverting the traditions of movie music. In the grand scheme of things this makes them not such odd bedfellows, and their teamwork on The Social Network and now Dragon Tattoo—films about who really knows what, and why—that much more fitting. Where Fincher’s twists come in the tale-telling, R&R create film-long atmosphere instead of mere set pieces for particular scenes, and replace traditional orchestral and atmospheric arrangements with studio manipulations of the elements of rock and aggressive electronic music.
The sounds on this score hearken back to the kind of music made by edgy contemporaries—Coil, Foetus, Autechre, Aphex Twin—who were either remixing Reznor’s NIN work in the 1990s or being released alongside it. He and Ross make significant use of tuned feedback and static as instruments, as well as their standbys of effected guitar, softened percussion, and bell-tone synths. It’s a wide, cold swath of music and technology, one that makes good sense behind the tale of high-tech investigations in deepest, darkest Sweden.
If there are issues to be had with this soundtrack, they lay in just how wide that swath cuts. The film’s listed running time is 2:38; R&R’s music is a triple-album monstrosity that runs 2:43. Much of the soundtrack was provided as songs which could stand on their own, but it’s apparent (through the film’s quieter moments of dialogue and action) that some songs were only partially used, and there’s probably a few that don’t show up at all. There’s also no identifiable unifying musical theme weaving through the tracks to help, as there was in The Social Network, and few song titles clearly point to particular scenes.
So as intriguing as the score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, nobody’s going to want to do the detective work necessary to track down the music from Rooney Mara’s sex scenes, or figure out just where a highlight like “You’re Here” is used in the film. Outside of Reznor and Ross’ blistering, Karen O-led cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” and the new How to Destroy Angels track “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”—we know they’re tracks for the film’s credits—there’s almost too much mystery to this mystery. But hey, Trent and Atticus have Oscars and Golden Globes on their shelves now, so are we really in a position to argue with the results?