[13 March 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
The in-studio footage of composers Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurrianns working on the score to Denis Villeneuve‘s grim thriller Enemy, adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double, bears some resemblance to a similar in-studio video: Scott Walker at work on his most recent magnum opus, Bish Bosch. Unlike Walker, Bensi and Jurrianns show their faces to the camera; moreover, Enemy OST never gets that weird (and by “weird” I mean songs about grandmothers frightened by Hawaiians and Attila the Hun’s court jester). The commonalities, however, are plenty: atypical instrumentation, dissonance, and, of course, darkness. All three of these musicians have a firm grasp on the still-controversial notion that musical instruments have no specific way to be played. Why bow a violin when you can scrape it, or make it and the rest of the string section sound like insects crawling over a creaky, aged wood floor? Composers who ask these questions can often get too caught up in being avant-garde—as far as this critic is concerned, the jury should be called back in on the matter of the unqualified greatness of Jonny Greenwood as a film scorer—but for the men responsible for Enemy OST, throwing out the John Williams Playbook for Orchestral Film Scoring is exactly the right move.
Asits sepia-heavy trailer makes plain, Enemy is an unsettling film. Brooding and menacing, the film offers up a take on the classic noir trope of mistaken identity that’s more The Wrong Man than The Big Lebowski. The former is an apt comparison, given Villeneuve’s forays into Hitchcockian territory. Prisoners, his underrated 2013 thriller, is a mélange of contemplative philosophy and classically-styled tension building in the vein of certain legendary thriller directors. With Enemy, Villeneuve seems to be following along the same path; not only is the heavy use of shadow in the film reminiscent of the best old-school noirs, but the music he employs—courtesy of Bensi and Jurrianns—very much evokes a sense of thrill that’s more suggestive than many of today’s thrillers. Rather than opting for the methodology of the global box office juggernaut that is the Liam Neeson Thriller or the never ending paranormal thriller fad, Villeneuve, Bensi, and Jurrianns explore the silence in between the frights. Never has the clarinet sounded so simultaneously whimsical and foreboding as it does on “Control” and “Curiosity”; it’s the kind of thing one would expect a Scott Walker type to laugh at.
Enemy OST is one of those rare soundtracks that leaps off of the screen and becomes its own story. This music makes you feel its ebb and flow. The “lulls” can only be classed as such insofar as they have less volume than the louder passages; from the moment “The Dark Room” kicks this moody affair off, the sense of murder-most-foul in the air is palpable. Taking cues from Penderecki, Bensi and Saunder utilize the full range of their orchestral instruments, wringing sounds out of them one might not have thought possible. Elongated D notes on the cello form ominous backgrounds, to the point where it sounds as if it were electronically rather than acoustically sourced. Shrill pizzicato strings emerge from deceptively calm passages. At times, a sound similar to metal in a machine shop provides adds to the largely fragmentary percussive patterns, as on “Sucker Punch,” one of the score’s most pulse-pounding moments. A good reference point percussion-wise to this score is Terry Bozzio’s collaboration with the Metropole Orkest, Chamber Works, though a key dissimilarity to Bozzio’s work is the intimacy of Enemy OST. The music forms an all-consuming environment, but a majority of these tracks only use a few instruments at a time.
But it ain’t all chills and screams with Enemy OST. The most powerful moments of the score come when it waxes rhapsodic. “I Think You Know” starts off like many of the tracks do here: suspenseful mood, doomy strings, and spine-tingling string plucks. But then, in its last minute, it unfolds into a gorgeous violin section, a piercing beam of sunlight slicing its way through the overcast sky. Likewise, closer “Theraphosa Blondi” intersperses these lovely violins with the funereal cellos and glum ambiance, staging a sort of microcosmal battle between light and dark. On the whole, Enemy OST is a bleak album, one best accompanied by a glass of scotch with the lights turned down—perhaps while plotting revenge against a far-off enemy. But a faint glimpse of something like hope does peek its head out, even if it gets swallowed by the malevolence surrounding it.
The dynamic nature of Bensi and Jurriann’s work here is such that it feels like they haven’t just made music for film. The main themes are placed in such a way that Enemy OST plays like a dark ambient concerto, able to stand on its own terms, even without the added benefit of Jake Gyllenhaal’s perplexed mug to add intensity to the aural images. Of the many things that make a film score great, the ability to stand alone is undoubtedly one of the key criteria, and this composer duo has met it in spades. Enemy OST revels in the dark; never will you have been so thrilled to feel like you need to check if someone is standing over your shoulder.