Ambient Sound-Design. Something many filmmusic enthusiasts fear and may even hate. But what they actually mean is bad ambient sound-design.
Tate Taylor’s The Girl On The Train is a thriller about a young woman (Emily Blunt), who hit rock-bottom and now always rides the same train and likes to observe people. But then a person goes missing and she gets deeply involved in a murder-mystery, not too different from ‘Gone Girl’ as the vibe of the trailer leads to believe. The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.
Danny Elfman going the extra mile in the thriller genre
Hired to provide the musical score for this project was composer Danny Elfman. An odd choice, as many people might think, considering that Elfman’s fame goes back mostly to the lush, orchestral and gothic choral works he wrote for the films by Tim Burton.
‘The Girl On The Train’ is a wholly other beast. Even the more restrained dramatic works by Elfman have not very much in common and the best comparison pieces would be last year’s ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ as well as the very recent soundtrack for ‘Before I Wake’ which he scored together with The Newton Brothers. Similar to these two other scores, the ‘The Girl On The Train’ soundtrack is very heavy on electronics and ambience, focusing more on creating a tense, modern, almost sterile atmosphere rather than entertaining the listener with catchy melodies.
But that should not lead to the assumption that the score is without merits. Danny Elfman’s thriller music is different from the mushy stew of droning, minimalistic noise, that is prominent in many similar films nowadays, thanks to a director whose name rhymes with pincher. Where those soundtracks just create some dissonant sounds to make the audience feel uneasy and then leave it at that, Elfman goes the extra mile to actually form a score out of that premise.
Most modern thriller scores consist of a number of anonymous cues, that could be interchanged within the film without really causing any differences. They get the tone of their respective films but totally fail to support the narrative in any way and that is exactly what Elfman composed: A narrative. Obviously he does not go full-on John Williams or Howard Shore and writes a lengthy theme for every single extra walking around on the screen, but he does present a couple of recurring ideas that get explored during the 52 minutes runtime of the album:
Added depth through instrumentation
The score for ‘The Girl on the Train’ kicks off with Riding The Train, a 4-minute piece that instantly tells the listener what he is in for. The orchestra is reduced to a mere supporting role while a synthetically processed piano and soft electric guitars get into the spotlight. It is no groundbreaking style or sound and fits perfectly into the mold of the popular works of Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and the likes.
But again, Elfman does not stop there. He adds depth to the style. Not really through themes and motifs, but through instrumentation. The piano and guitar play off each other amazingly well without sounding like a pop or rock track. The cues on this album are not structured in a suite-like manner, which would probably be more accessible but would diminish the narrative.
Both instruments play short rhythmic ideas rather than fully fledged themes, but in that way they masterfully perform the stretch between modern minimalism and sophisticated filmscoring. The repetitive nature of those little motifs strengthen the notion of riding the same circulating train lines day after day after day while tingly, metallic percussion adds another layer to the introvert nature of the track.
It is kind of beautiful but in a depressing melancholy that really fits the setting of the film in autumn.
Progression via minimalistic variation
This soundscape and rhythmic ideas form the remainder of the whole soundtrack and get explored in many of the other tracks, while Megan, Missing Time and Just Desserts / Self Defense even add electronically manipulated vocals (the voices in the latter cue being probably the closest thing to traditional Elfman in this score). For musical ideas this simple and minimalistic, Danny Elfman really knows how to variate them. The film still is about a complex mystery and as such, the music should not treat it that way and not strip away all the complexity.
Similar to James Newton Howard in ‘Signs’ or ‘Nightcrawler’, Elfman shows how much can be done with just a couple of notes; and even with the prominent degree of repetition he manages to develop the material as the story and characters progress.
The score’s darker, more suspense-filled parts are also handled with a noteworthy subtlety, as proved by the harsh, slowly pulsating celli in Somethin’s Not Right and the anxious synthetic textures in tracks like Touch Myself (whoa, Danny, slow down there!) and Rachel.
Overall engaging music – just not everyone
However, besides the obvious craftsmanship put into this score, it does not come without its flaws, because some of the more low-key underscore parts (A Sad Liar, Deviled Eggs) can be pretty tedious or even boring to listen to and the all too short track lengths may be a blessing for those tracks, but other pieces, especially Day One, seem to cut off before the juicy part comes. The bubbling textures in that particular cue are really intriguing, but 50 seconds is just not enough.
The two longer titles we do get, feature some nice development and exploration of all the instrumental, rhythmic and melodic material the score offers. Again, they don’t fall into the trap of being easily listenable suites or pop tracks but provide an actual narrative value. The listener follows the story of the film through the music when the track changes between the moods and is sometimes depressing – and sometimes very depressing! From the 1:30 minute-mark on, Memory gets particularly dark and brooding so the listener gets a sense of what might happen in the film, presumably a disturbing, crucial flashback, judging by the track’s title. The last minute of Really Creepy gets harsh as well. One might even say that it’s… really creepy.
After almost an hour of going back and forth, the album finally offers a resolution in the aptly named final track Resolution/The Girl On The Train – Main Titles where the piano gets a fuller performance without any processing and allows the listener to take a deep, redeeming breath. The restrained, but beautiful cello accompaniment does the rest. The thoroughly calm and fulfilling nature of the track as well as a sense of finality leads to believe, that this is rather the films End Title than the Main Title; otherwise it would be a frustratingly curious placing on the album.
All in all, ‘The Girl On The Train’ is a pretty solid Elfman score and a staple example of how to write engaging music for a modern thriller! Orchestral enthusiasts might find the overly electronic approach off-putting and this soundtrack still is a huge departure from Elfman’s usual amazingness, but it’s nevertheless a recommendable score, just not for everyone.
P.S.: If you’re repeatedly driven to reach for your phone during the last minute of „I’m Sorry“, don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with you.