It is surely no easy task to compose a score for a film written by Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing creator’s witty dialogue has a certain music lurking in its DNA, an unrelenting staccato rhythm that evokes its own audio contexts without the help of background orchestration. In the Sorkin-penned, David Fincher-directed The Social Network, this rhythm sweeps the viewer (and the listener) up and away in a tide of language, as a counterpoint to—or a reflection of?—the flash-flood of programming code and text-based interaction through which Facebook rides into the popular consciousness. What role could further musical accompaniment possibly play in this equation?
Enter Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who conceive of darkly-nurtured aural circuit boards to score the film’s tone of ominous moral disquiet. Building on their open-ended collaborations for the last two Nine Inch Nails releases, Ghosts I-IV and The Slip, Reznor and Ross lay out their sinister methodology from the outset. The lead-off cut for the soundtrack album, “Hand Covers Bruise”, is one of the most memorable pieces of music in the film, following Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a long nighttime walk back to his Harvard dorm after being deservedly dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). The sharp contrast between the buzzing-hornet electro-strings in the background and the tender three-note piano melody reflects the film’s juxtaposition of the social and the anti-social, the digital-edged burps of sound hinting at the menacing mechanizing of human relations that Fincher and Sorkin tentatively lament.
Much of the fare that follows is signature Nine Inch Nails instrumentality, all industrial tones and unremitting synthetic beats suggesting the blackest night of the soul. The earlier tracks hitch onto the inexorable momentum of Facebook’s rise and expansion; “In Motion”, “Intriguing Possibilities”, and “Carbon Prevails” are pulsating anthems to furious coding, and “A Familiar Taste” tosses in some aggressive guitar crunch for good measure. The middle ground is taken up by pensive efforts like “Painted Sun in Abstract”, “Pieces Form the Whole”, and “On We March”, as doubts and second thoughts plague the unraveling onscreen partnership of Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
Amidst this cacophony of unease, it should be no surprise that Reznor and Ross run that classical monument to foreboding, the highlight of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, through their diabolical computers. As striking a version as it is, the fact that it scores the film’s most visually striking scene—Fincher’s tour-de-force depiction of the Winklevoss twins’ narrow loss at the Henley Royal Rowing Regatta in England—only makes it stand out that much more. It’s eventually followed and quite nearly usurped by the red-eyed stabs of “Magnetic”, the vicious swipe of cold metal that finally cuts the knot of friendship between our heroes, before empathetic pianos and gentler electronics cushion our fall on the closing tracks.
Therefore, we can conclude that, while the actual compositions themselves are of debatable merit and of a predictable bent, the soundtrack to The Social Network represents a perceptive match of particular talents to specific material. Even if Reznor and Ross produce little that would not have felt at home on Ghosts I-IV, Fincher’s application of their unsettling abilities to his unnerving movie feels like one of the project’s multiple strokes of inspired genius. As darkly-hued as Fincher and Sorkin’s views of entrepreneurial ethics and interpersonal morality are in The Social Network, the score that Reznor and Ross provide pushes the film into even deeper shadows and suggests an outline of technological panic in the human psyche that gives the film’s critique of the social web a sharper edge than it would have had without it. No filmmaker could ever ask for more.