Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross recording in Toronto in 2006 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; photo by Aaron Tait)

With their work for HBO’s Watchmen series, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross ended the 2010s much the same way they began the decade: as universally fêted composers. The Watchmen score, with its blend of groaning ambient, ‘80s-throwback electro, and even Dixieland jazz, embodies the show’s ambitious historical revisionism, in which the past is every bit as subject to scrutiny and reconsideration as an alternate present. It’s a far cry from the industrial blast of their collaborations for Nine Inch Nails, and a reflection of how, as Reznor recently told Billboard, he and Ross “help decode what the show runner or the director’s vision is.” That’s a remarkable surrender of ego for such an influential musician, and it explains how Reznor and Ross have made such varied soundtracks despite working with largely the same tools of Erik Satie-esque piano, white noise, and propulsive electronic beats. 

A pair that foregrounds the needs and talents of the filmmakers with whom they collaborate, their best scores have naturally accompanied films and shows with clear auteurial vision. In addition to Watchmen, this has largely consisted of Reznor and Ross’s collaborations with director David Fincher. The duo’s first score, for The Social Network (2010), is rooted in ‘90s and early-2000s electronica; chirping synths dance over thumping 4/4 beats. In a way, the music sounds like something that the film’s own characters might listen to during their plugged-in coding sessions, a hyper-cool album that can imbue stationary activities with dynamic intensity.

Underneath that, however, Reznor and Ross layer in unnerving counterpoints that complicate, then ultimately erode, this lighter tone. Somber piano chords echo against wide gulfs of negative space, and whirring undercurrents of atonal noise that capture the mounting realization that a creation as innocuous as Facebook was morphing into something far beyond anyone’s conception or control, linking millions while exacerbating their isolation from one another.

The Social Network’s quietest and most unsettling aspects would form the bedrock of the duo’s subsequent scores for Fincher. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), brittle digital noise is pushed to the foreground, resulting in electronic howls reflective of the intense, wintry cold of the film’s remote Swedish setting. Mirroring the film’s info-dump structure, the score presents abstract hisses that gradually pull into focus as recognizable songs, belatedly revealing stray bits of shapeless noise to be leitmotifs. 

For Gone Girl (2014), Reznor and Ross drew inspiration from a story the director recounted of going to a chiropractor and being freaked out by the nominally relaxing muzak in the office. Befitting a story of a placid surface revealed to be a carefully maintained fiction of two codependent psychopaths, the score starts out as a New Age series of pulsing tone clusters that could pass for a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, only for buzzing glitches to open gashes in its tranquil façade. Sonar pings that at first embodied the way two people feel each other out at the start of a relationship become militaristic, reflecting the game of Battleship that Nick (Ben Affleck)  and Amy (Rosamund Pike) ultimately play in trying to attack each other from afar. By the end, the soundtrack is all noise and glitches, with recurring themes employed ironically, a faint reminder of a long-shattered image.

From Gone Girl (2014), dir. David Fincher (courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

In the process of realizing Fincher’s varied visions, Reznor and Ross also tied their soundtracks into the larger evolutionary arc of Nine Inch Nails. In many ways their scores for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feel like realizations of the failed ambitions of The Slip and Ghosts I—IV, respectively (both 2008), while Watchmen’s nods at ‘80s synthpop bring things full circle back to Reznor’s first album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989). Reznor and Ross even throw in a number of covers across their projects that speak to their influences, from a Wendy Carlos-esque rendition of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to a serrated version of “Immigrant Song” that gives Led Zeppelin real menace. The final song on the Watchmen soundtrack, a somber instrumental of “Life on Mars,” is as much a comment on Doctor Manhattan as it is a eulogy for the song’s maker and Reznor’s close friend, David Bowie.

Occasionally, a Reznor/Ross score treads water; their work on Netflix’s meme-generating Bird Box (2018), is reflective of the film itself, and feels generic and too much like a host of other recent horror-movie ambient. Similarly, the soundtracks for Waves (2019) and Mid90s (2018) are mostly ambient bridges between those films’ endless needle-drop soundtrack cues. But even these scores have their strengths, with Waves in particular capturing the film’s underlying melancholy arguably better than the movie itself. “We aim for these [soundtracks] to play like albums that take you on a journey and can exist as companion pieces to the films and as their own separate works,” Reznor wrote upon the release of the Bird Box score, and indeed their soundtracks constitute some of the best music of the 2010s, doing as much to ensure their legacy as the output of Reznor’s primary outlet.

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Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slant Magazine, MTV...