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Film Music Examined #3: The Guest and Walk Among the Tombstones

This week I’ll briefly review two scores I particularly enjoyed. The first was that of The Guest, a genre mash-up film from Adam Wingard, and the other was A Walk Among the Tombstones, a thriller from Scott Frank. While both films are not my stylistic cup of tea, their scores have a lot to offer, meriting a substantial review for each.

The Guest, which is chock-full of indie/synth-pop songs and features mix tapes as a big narrative feature (I’ll avoid the spoiler), is about an ex-marine who decides to temporarily stay with the family of one of his friends killed in battle. Craziness ensues—that’s all I’ll say about the story for now. The score establishes the tone and style of the film with a cutting clarity. It essentially announces what type of film this is going to be at the outset, when the title (in purple font, I’ll have you), jump-cuts on screen after a shot of running and a scarecrow. There’s a cheesy orchestral sting that again announces the musical style along with the visual and narrative style—that of a 1980’s-influenced “genre-mashup” exploitation film. The underscore, provided by Steve Moore, captures this 80’s “Grindhouse” style with analog synthesizers. I was reminded of Trent Reznor’s score to The Social Network. This analog, techno-beat sound matches well with the mix tapes and the stylistic vibe (both in flashy editing, colors, sometimes silly acting, etc.) of the film.

Moore plays both on the irony of the style and the drama and tension of the scene. A frequent technique that Moore uses is what I call the “build-up and cut off.” When Dan Stevens sits on the bed in Caleb’s old room, the music brews underneath his stone-cold face, suggesting the built up potential for violence and psychological outburst within him. The music abruptly cuts off on the cut. It’s simultaneously funny, disturbing, and tense—a self-parody with some serious undertones, or vice versa, given your aesthetic priorities.

Another “swell-to-cutoff” musical effect occurs during the party scene, when another teenager doubts the idea of military service. Steven’s character slowly gets angrier and serious, convincingly so—the music matches this tense build, and makes the audience feel as if he will strike at any moment. But, the music cuts out and Steven’s convincing smile takes the audience back into a strange satisfaction and relief. Silence and repose allows the audience this space to breathe. So, the music is playing to the deep fear and psychology of the audience’s response but also the internal rage and potential for violence of the character. Moments like this are full of craft and recognition of style. While I did not particularly like this film (that’s a separate review all together), the music had that sense of craft and knew its stylistic place, as well as the use of music in those 1980’s Grindhouse style films.

On the other end of the spectrum is the A Walk Among the Tombstones score, written by University of Miami’s own Carlos Rafael Riviera. Carlos co-teaches our film scoring class at UM with Chris Boardman. From an objective standpoint, this is a compelling score. The film traces private investigator Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) as he hunts down two serial killers. The score heavily features electric guitar, dissonant strings, and choir—a sound environment for the character’s past. These sounds are recorded and the rest is “in the box,” or totally mocked up in Logic. It’s an impressive sound set of harps, strings, piano, and vibraphone. The music is in a neo-noir style, with plenty of minor tonalities and subtly bubbling tension.

Carlos doesn’t cater to the specific moods of the moment but rather creates a sound world for the film, an overriding stylistic trend to match the bleak, dark New York streets. One standout moment was after Scudder climbs out of the basement having killed the second antagonist. He leans against the wall in a brief moment of pause. The score inches in with dissonant strings before resolving with a quick glissando to a still ambiguous, but less grating, open fifth—here we know that the violence and tension is over. The music plays a perfectly active part in the unraveling of the dramatic tension, providing temporary release when there is none on screen. However, just because the tension is over, does not mean the prevailing darkness is not still there. On the subway on the way home, the dark music continues. This moment is not a profound victory for Scudder—he still needs to mend his dark past and the painful memories and ongoing psychological difficulties of his job are still omnipresent. In that sense, the score had a realism to it that matched the scope of the film. It doesn’t leave the genre with a predictable musical arc nor cater to the character’s typified emotional journey or internal realizations, but skates over these for with a general moody approach. I mean this in the best way possible—it is an effective musical approach and takes a great deal of tasks to maintain that mood. It is an appropriately unsettling backdrop for an ever unsettling job.

Films conclude and don’t go on like reality does. The ending of A Walk Among the Tombstones demonstrates this fact, but also leaves room for reality and continuation of a dirty, dangerous job. The last shot of Scudder in his room, alone to consider his past difficulties and troubles, plays upon this notion. The music helps the mood settle here; instead of providing relief as endings typically do, the score provides continuation of a dark theme, changed, of course, but still just as dark and rainy as the opening.


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