Music in Film: Gone Girl, Reznor and Fincher’s musical marriage

The arrival of Gone Girl prompts Ivan to take a listen back to the impeccable soundtracks in David Fincher's earlier movies...

“I am officially in control of our story… Isn’t that what every marriage is, anyway?”

That’s Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) in Gone Girl. A dark satire on marriage, it’s a film that recasts human relationships as a battle of control, perfection and perception. In other words, it’s a natural fit for David Fincher – and his soundtrack is equally at home.

It perhaps seems harsh to call it Fincher’s soundtrack, especially given that the score is composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but it also feels apt. The director is renowned for his auteur-like attention to detail, recording take after take of even the shortest shot to get the desired result for the audience’s eyes – and he’s just as meticulous when it comes to the ears. When music isn’t playing, the soundscape is equally thought through, created in the same manner as everything else; through repeated attempts at achieving a single effect.

It’s an approach that Fincher has adopted ever since he first got control over his production with Seven.

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You can tell from the opening scene how big a part sound plays in the movie’s atmosphere. Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset dresses for work in silence, the only thing audible being the city itself; cars, sirens, a place that Freeman’s detective has grown weary of. When we cut to our opening crime scene, the first thing we’re told is that the neighbours heard a gun go off – both barrels. This is a place defined by the noise of crimes, a town of decaying morals where people can recognise not just a gunshot, but the type of gunshot. Suddenly, the metronome that Freeman’s character uses to drown out the world makes sense.

Then, Fincher unleashes one of his most memorable uses of music: a remix of Closer by Nine Inch Nails. Setting the tone (hint: dark) for the movie, the striking opening credits end with Trent shouting six key words: “YOU GET ME CLOSER TO GOD”. Then the screen cuts out.

It’s a rapid, shocking burst of noise, which contrasts heavily with Howard Shore’s score, a quieter composition of synth-like strings, whose drawn out notes climb higher until they border on a ringing in your ears. What’s notable is how little that music is used, at first only accompanying crime scenes, while the police station is silent save for ambient hustle and bustle. As the serial killer’s spree becomes increasingly nasty, the music spreads through the background, only finding pause when Somerset visits the library – and Bach’s Air on the G String cuts through, a brief respite from the ever-rising sound of dread.

Seven set the pattern for Fincher’s acoustic style: an uneasy shift between quiet and loud, order and chaos, control and lack of it.

Panic Room saw Howard Shore team up with Fincher once more. He played with Bernard Herrmann-esque motifs to drive tension, but the claustrophobic suspense was again fuelled by that carefully assembled audio tapestry, using everything from gas and metal doors to hammers and breathing to bring to life the script’s locked-in environment.

Sound mixer Ren Klyce was part of that team – and has worked with Fincher on all of his movies. It’s no surprise that Ren and his colleagues have been Oscar nominated for the last four in a row, either for Sound Mixing or Sound Editing. On Fight Club, they experimented with all kinds of objects to create the sound of a punch – from battering chicken carcasses with baseball bats to cracking walnuts inside them. 

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“When you hear the punches in a film like Rocky they usually just use one punch over and over again,” he said. “It’s very muddy and dark, and kind of boxy sounding. David Fincher, however, was much harder to please, and so we had to come up with some very different sounds.”

So specific and complex were their needs that Klyce and foley mixer Malcolm Fife co-own their own studio (Tyrell Studios) with engineer David Gleeson, so that they could work on mixing the sounds with music and dialogue.

“A big problem with a lot of big films is that all of the layers are being developed independently, and no one really knows what they are going to sound until it’s too late,” said Fife. “You end up doing a lot of cutting on the sound stage, and so that’s why we decided to build our own rooms in which we could hear everything the way it’s supposed to be long before time runs out.”

It was ideal for Fincher, who would spot the film throughout, offering corrections and requests on an ongoing basis – not unlike his approach to actors on set.

While the director’s foley was being increasingly refined, Fincher also found a new partner for his musical accompaniment: The Dust Brothers, whose mix of samples, bizarrely diverse instruments and heavy basslines create an unpredictable soundtrack to echo Fight Club‘s anarchic message. From the moment the record seems to be slipped off the turntable early on to reveal a pulsating beat beneath, the movie’s slide from order (cute, elevator-style office music) into chaos is complete.

Fast forward past the return of Shore and Zodiac’s chilling use of period music (and silence – perfectly summed up by Hurdy Gurdy Man near the movie’s start) and we arrive at Fincher’s first movie to receive an Oscar for its music: The Social Network. Here is where Fincher finds his modern groove, one that started all the way back with Seven’s precisely chaotic credits.

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After going on to direct a NIN music video in 2005 (If Only), Fincher convinced Trent Reznor to compose the score for his Facebook film, a project for which Trent recruited the help of Atticus Ross. The trio have worked with each other ever since, honing that dialogue between harmony and disarray.

In The Social Network, Reznor and Ross harness pulses and synths to depict another form of disruption; the sound of creativity racing forward in a technological age, summed up by broadband connections and synapses firing. Even during an instance of classical music to rival Seven‘s Bach, Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King is given a techo remix, with Fincher’s boating race sequence edited specifically to match the score. In fact, the whole of The Social Network is 10 minutes shorter than it would’ve been just so it fits the music. Even the trailer, with its choral cover of Radiohead’s Creep, shows how much the identity of Fincher’s work stems from the music.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo takes that integration of sound and music even further.

Ross and Reznor’s score is beautifully haunting, veering from pretty melodies to wrong-footing patterns; one stand-out track, Oraculum, jumps between 5/4 and 6/4 to create a piece with 11 beats in a bar that defies any attempt to pin it down; almost 20 years on from Seven, the mix of certainty and uncertainty remains a core part of Fincher’s horror-tinged work. Alongside the plinky rhythms (at first associated with Sweden) and the tech-world buzz of The Social Network, there are sweeter moments too: the only non-discordant moments occur during a sex scene halfway through between Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, a major key tune (What If We Could) that reprises in the final scene, just as Lisbeth hopes a relationship might blossom – a heart-breaking ending made all the more moving through that thematic connection. 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The use of sound and music for the most shocking moments is just as clinical: a floor polisher appears in your ear when Lisbeth is assaulted, an innocent hum – the sound that shows the office is empty and, effectively, allows her to be abused – overwhelming the scene in the foreground, matching the pitch of the music. During one attack on the Tube, the noise of the train becomes a high shriek, replacing Lisbeth’s human scream with something even more unnerving.

One torture scene, meanwhile, sees Reznor’s incessant quiet drumming (hitting every quaver on the beat) replaced by the overt, offbeat percussion of Orinoco Flow – the best (and most terrifying) use of Enya in a movie to date. Daniel Craig apparently suggested they just use the track that was on his iPod at the time, an innocuous, arbitrary choice that makes it all the more effective, as the sound of Mikael’s breathing intermittently blocks out the singer’s cheerful vocals; placing us in the same position as Mikael, unable to dictate what we hear.

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Which brings us back to control – and, fittingly, Gone Girl.

Gillian Flynn’s novel is explicitly about it, as Ben Affleck’s Nick protests his innocence regarding the missing of his wife, Rosamund Pike’s Amy, who, as the story goes, was murdered by her husband. As that narrative swings from one possibility to the other – in a way, giving Nick or Amy control of the story – Trent Reznor’s score does a similar thing. It almost feels like the culmination of all their previous work.

It’s no surprise, then, that the album is intricately structured, with a lot of tracks occurring in pairs, some of them reprises, one half almost mirroring another.

What Have We Done? kicks things off with floating synths that sing of a lost marriage. Sugar Storm, which accompanies the couple’s first kiss, is full of romantic possibility, but the first time we hear it, it’s undermined by distortion: a home wrecked. Only later, when equilibrium has potentially been restored, is the image restored of this perfect partnership; a booming, relaxed dirge of chords that recalls Angelo Badalamenti.

It’s the ideal reference for Reznor’s typically electronic accompaniment; Fincher’s and Flynn’s story is as much a satire on superficial happiness as it is a crime thriller. Reznor told The Wall Street Journal that he was told to find inspiration in the kind of harmless music played in a terrible spa: “The way that it artificially tries to make you feel like everything’s OK. And then imagine that sound starting to curdle and unravel.” Reznor found the best place to go in the world for a spa: Twin Peaks. 

But some of the album also features his first work with a live orchestra – which makes the electronic elements even more unsettling. That pulse, such a familiar driving feature of Social Network and Dragon Tattoo, grows to represent something new: control over the traditional, instrumental landscape. The rhythm, which dictates the speed of the piece, is like Morgan Freeman’s metronome in reverse, drowning out the civilised image of Nick and Amy Dunne and replacing it with its own.

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Once again, Fincher finds his best acoustic moments in the sound of silence: not just the emptiness of the marital home without the missing Amy, but the suffocating quietness of the suburban neighbourhood, so alien to the city girl, the hum of air con, of fluorescent lights in the police station. These are the things that people don’t realise they’re hearing; things that slip equally unnoticed into a movie, unless, of course, you’re the kind of detail-obsessed director who spends ages honing each second of your runtime, creating that discomfort by pushing things slightly off-kilter.

When the pulse inevitably arrives, it is when clues begin to appear, giving hints as to where Amy (or Amy’s body?) has disappeared – and potentially incriminating Nick. With Suspicion sees it become louder, high strings almost screaming, as Reznor ramps up Nick’s sense of claustrophobia.

Compared to Just Like You, a rubato piano number, which appears to have no time signature, even the loveliest piano arpeggios played at relaxed ease feel insincere and untrustworthy; slight jarring intervals slip into the right hand of the piano, reinforcing that sham feeling with no progression or resolution.

Appearances is when Reznor starts to undermine the surface calm more overtly, layering on-the-beat rhythms with a pulse that breaks the regular metronome with an emphasis on triplet groups of quavers, one that drums soon push into even more unpredictable territory.

That feeling shifts into gear with Clue One and Clue Two; as the narrative of Nick’s guilt takes hold, his traditional, romantic music slips from dainty to an atmosphere full of metal scrapes and bangs, as if trains are whining past on rails. Like Home returns to those happy chords, but they slip away again into ugliness; that disruption familiar from Fincher’s other scores has become the desperation of being under the thumb of something else.

The Way He Looks At Me, which occurs at the halfway point of the movie, feels like the biggest change in pace of them all; the bonging of a clock is joined by a shuffling rhythm that, for the first time, falls heavy on the second half of the downbeat. Brass enters, only to be subverted from that jaunty, shopping mall-type tune into something ruined, the jeering parp of suburbia gone wrong. Technically Missing sees the disrupting influence become celebratory, as loud guitars revel in their freedom, driving chord sequences up and up with the kind of attitude that makes you want to drive a car recklessly with sunglasses on. As the piece expands, it reaches an orchestral scale; an epic that resonates several tracks later (Still Gone) on a piano.

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Reznor builds all that uncontrollable unease to What Have We Done’s answer: another, more disturbing question – What Will We Do? – which takes the same floating synths of the opener and listens to them give way to distorted static and an ominous beat. Drums enter, becoming increasingly adventurous. The pace stays the same, but seems to build momentum… to what?

It’s here, in that unknown gap between quiet and noise, that Fincher’s presence is most overt. After years of intimate interaction, the director’s use of sound and music is a committed part of his work – and Reznor and Ross are dream partners in his threesome, playing into the motifs of chaos and order. Reznor composes unstructured themes, which he gives to Ross to arrange, knowing full well that they’ll be put to good use.

“Having limited experience with others, I’ve been astounded by the clarity of his vision—especially when you’ve seen it not be that,” Atticus tells The Wall Street Journal.

Fincher’s officially in control – and with him telling the story, it’s a happy marriage.