There’s an alien nature to the scores of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Even when the pair’s compositions are connecting with the rawest of human emotions, there’s a way that these two longtime collaborators have embraced a kind of outsider approach to film music and made it more accessible.
2019 saw Reznor and Ross contribute to “Waves” and “Watchmen,” two stories that diverge in more than just the usual film/TV divide. One is an intimate family portrait set in the suburbs of South Florida while the other traverses nearly a century of institutional oppression through the lens of one Oklahoma city. Where the musical expression of that pain and uncertainty typically is the province of a robust string section or a mournful piano solo, Reznor and Ross are part of a generation that’s helping to use that same language to adapt to an increasingly digital age.
It’s been a decade since David Fincher called on Reznor and Ross to score “The Social Network,” the first project where the two crafted an ambient soundscape for a story that otherwise would have called upon something far different. The knife-like atmospheric opening and synth-laden hammer drops of “Hand Covers Bruise” seemed foreign to the kind of prestige, auteur-driven biopic that audiences might have expected from a Facebook origin story. That disorientation gave way to a dueling dance of dreams and nightmares in Fincher’s next films “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.” (Look no further than the latter’s “Sugar Storm” and “The Way He Looks at Me” to see how Reznor and Ross play both sides of the same coin.)
Reznor and Ross have also been noteworthy contributors to the film music landscape by not being exclusive of genre or directorial partnerships. Part of that comes from filmmakers recognizing that the marriage of artist and material works outside Sorkin dialogue and impeccable populist literary adaptations. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick enlisted the duo to score the expansive “The Vietnam War” while Fisher Stevens did the same for his climate change doc “Before the Flood.”
That versatility, not just in expanding outward to documentaries, but providing an existential rallying cry for examining the past and preventing a certain kind of future, showed that Reznor and Ross’ approach didn’t have to be segmented off solely in portraits of tortured protagonists. There’s a turmoil that lives within their work that is more universal than people may have realized at the outset of the decade. Film scores have thrived on a certain amount of tension between expectations and the final product since the silent era, but Reznor and Ross have been able to give a new generation a specific way to express that dissonance. It’s one that will make you want to punch through a brick wall one minute, then sit down and look back on your life as you cradle a broken fist.
Non-orchestral work certainly didn’t just start receiving more widespread acclaim in 2010, but “The Social Network” did feel like a crack in a tradition of scores that, when they won Oscars or Emmys, could easily be played by the musicians in the pit at the ceremony. It’s hard not to draw a line between that win and Mica Levi getting the opportunity to score “Jackie” with a pitch-bent descent into one woman’s trauma. Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka’s score for “Lion” is more traditionally melodic, but there’s a texture there that feels in line with that advance. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson took those pulsating ideas and funneled them into his scores for Denis Villeneuve’s films. And the hybrid orchestral loops of Ludwig Göransson and Nicholas Britell may not have had the breathing room to become “Black Panther” or “Succession” if there wasn’t at least an adjacent, proven template.
So even as this pair adapts their output to each successive project, one throughline seems to remain. Taking a cue from the title of one of the last Nine Inch Nails albums before Reznor and Ross became an established film presence, their scores are filled with ghosts. As the individuals within these films and shows wrestle with specific legacies of families and nations and unwieldy technological innovations, their music is a canvas drawn with the kind of simplicity you can project your own feelings onto. They’re not the first to take that kind of approach, but their success have meant that a fresh wave of musical storytellers can live inside a haunted place and find the beauty within it.