Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Score is as Mysterious as the Plot of ‘Gone Girl’

By  · Published on October 6th, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox

Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” opens with a quote from Tony Kushner’s “The Illusion” saying, “Love is the world’s infinite mutability.”

David Fincher’s film adaptation also begins with this idea of mutability as he shows us dampened images of the Missouri landscape while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score whispers against it through moderate instrumentation. This subtle and underplayed approach to the music gives the feeling that you are embarking on a slow burn of a journey – which is exactly what happens in the novel and the film.

As Gone Girl begins, Reznor and Ross’ music gives a pulse to the toned down, almost bleak surroundings we’re seeing, but never overpowers them. It’s this balance of having the music present while not overly influencing what’s happening on screen that makes Reznor and Ross’ score so successful.

Gone Girl is a twisted, turn-filled story of a marriage gone sour that slowly reveals itself to be much more. Flynn’s novel is captivating thanks to the way she approaches the narrative from the dual (and at times opposing) perspectives of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliot-Dunne (Rosamund Pike). Where Fincher faced the challenge of showing these two perspectives without indicating where the truth may lie, Reznor and Ross were tasked with finding a way to infuse the film with a sense of unease and unreliability without giving away any of the twists explored along the way.

This is not a film where you want the music to hint at the truth being unspoken because doing so would spoil things (and, honestly, ruin the fun). Gone Girl creates a world that is full of details, but those details are surrounded by a sense of confusion that is hard to put your finger on. When detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) puts a sticky note next to a piece of potential evidence in Nick and Amy’s home, the music refuses to indicate whether Nick’s reaction is because he didn’t notice something so obvious to Rhonda, because he’s just now realized the potential she’s been harmed or because he didn’t cover his tracks better. The score stays neutral whether the camera is cutting to Nick or Rhonda, smartly reinforcing the feeling that you never know what’s going on or which reactions to focus on.

The result is that we have to focus on everything.

Flashbacks to Nick and Amy’s courtship days depict a couple falling in love to a Reznor and Ross’ score that slows down to an almost dreamlike state. But this sonic approach can be taken two different ways: Was Nick and Amy’s courtship really as perfect as it seems (like a dream come to life) or are these flashbacks truly dreams (maybe even fantasies)? Riding this line of truth/fiction and exaggeration/understatement is what exists at the root of Gone Girl, and Reznor and Ross wisely follow this approach in the film’s score. As Reznor revealed recently, Fincher’s directive was to create music that “might appear to be perfect and pleasant on the outside but have it sort of rot inside.”

As the narrative (and the mystery) weaves on, Reznor and Ross start to add unsettling electronic elements to the airy and understated orchestration, but they also have no problem pulling those harsher elements back, letting the music ebb and flow along with the story. The one constant seems to be how the music takes on a more staccato beat when Amy is on screen, but it is never made clear if that choice is due to the mystery surrounding Amy’s disappearance or Amy herself as a potent figure. These small, almost unnoticeable choices are what make the film’s score such an important part in crafting the delicious confusion that drives the story.

Reznor and Ross certainly know how to manipulate electronic elements to work alongside more traditional orchestration (as proven with their hybrid scores for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but what really sets their score for Gone Girl apart from their past work is how their understanding of when the music should exit a scene completely – letting the silence or dialogue take over. Every word in Gone Girl is important, and Reznor and Ross are prudent enough to understand the moments when empty space works better than music.

The sound of Gone Girl truly feels like a cohesive effort with the score expertly mingling with the sound design. The sound of heartbeats and ticking clocks bleed into the music in a way that makes it difficult to determine if you are actually hearing those sounds or if they are simply a part of the score’s percussion. But the true brilliance is how the music never indicates what you expect it to. You hear a heartbeat and expect to see Amy. You hear a dissonant chord or electric crackle and expect to see Nick. But neither of the expectations are ever truly met – they are simply sounds woven into the narrative, working as yet another clever way to keep you perpetually turned around.

The music of Gone Girl is tense without being intrusive – working almost as a reflection of the way Nick and Amy interact with one other. Marriage can be complicated, and Reznor and Ross reflect this sentiment with a score that builds upon itself to create layers and patterns. Nick and Amy may be doing a dance throughout the film, but Reznor and Ross are the ones expertly keeping the beat.

The soundtrack for Gone Girl is currently available on iTunes.

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