You may not have heard of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannssen. I certainly haven’t. But you might be hearing more of him soon if his score for the upcoming thriller PRISONERS is anything to go by. Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film starts with two young girls being kidnapped. One of the girls’ father – Jackman – is tipped off about someone that possibly was responsible, and takes it on himself to imprison them in his basement, willing to do anything to get the man to confess to the crime.
PRISONERS is absolutely appropriate for the somewhat morally ambigious themes of the film. It’s very much an intimate work – that’s not to say it doesn’t ever go “big”, at least in the Hollywood scoring sense, but it’s certainly concentrated on the emotions at work and the internal dialogue of the film. It’s a fascinating score, atmospheric as hell, with the ability to wow you with its beauty and make your skin crawl as it plumbs the depths.
There are two main musical ideas in the score; a hopeful and emotional violin theme which seems to represent the kidnapped girls and their parents’ emotions, and a darker cello theme that represents the murkier aspects of the film, very possibly regarding the actions of Hugh Jackman’s character. Both contrast each other well; the hopeful theme is used a lot in the first parts of the score to cement the ideas of how the kidnapping has affected everyone, and then the cello theme comes in to look at the more troubling parts.
It’s interesting to hear a score that uses the more traditional ingredients for the darker side of things – the low-register strings, electronics, a wordless chorus – but doesn’t come across as being stereotypical or generic as many do in the current musical climate. The music composed here is much more on the side of building intensity rather than just throwing it at you, and as a result it can be quite hard to listen to. It’s rare I find a score so creepy that I have to stop listening to it, but I found that happen a couple of times in PRISONERS.
Because of the tone of the cello theme, it subsequently gives the hopeful theme a bigger purpose, so when we return back to that piece it’s a reminder of the events that kicked off the story, the events that are driving the characters. It’s a contrast to the more primitive and instinctive side, and the movement between the two makes for a compelling juxtaposition, both musically and emotionally. It almost makes the hopeful theme cathartic, which is a pretty powerful thing for a score to do.
An interesting plus for the score is how listenable it is away from the film. Often when you have music dealing with darker and edgier material and helping to depict some questionable stuff, there’s a tendency for it to aesthetically devolve into a more sound design mode, especially in the horror genre of recent times. PRISONERS is interesting because it gets to points where it’s as unsettling as those kinds, but is also a good listening experience.
PRISONERS is an excellent score. It has moments of beauty and horror, it’s emotionally compelling, and it’s musically fascinating. Based on this, you can certainly expect to see more of Jóhannsson’s work. And why not?
PRISONERS is out today from WaterTower Music.
Words: Charlie Brigden