A few months ago, I wrote about the music that concludes the film A Quiet Passion, and that brought to mind one of the most frustrating endings, musically speaking, that I’ve experienced in a film score.
It was ten years ago; the film was There Will Be Blood. Justly celebrated as one of the most amazing films of the 21st century, it features an award-winning score by Jonny Greenwood. Much of the music was recycled, to positive effect, from his string composition Popcorn Superhet Receiver. Music that was composed for the film featured string glissandos and clusters in a way that was at once incongruous and refreshing in a film set in the Old West.
The conclusion features a horrifically brutal beating – just as the title promised – after which we are treated to the final movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which is the part I found frustrating, and even a bit ridiculous. The cheery toe-tappiness of the music undermines what we’ve just witnessed. Of course, that’s ironic, and irony can be a very effective device, but this irony is terribly misplaced. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is devoid of irony, his character is increasingly driven by impulsive rages and desires over the course of 2+ hours, and the camera dives right in with him, deeply involving the viewer, even making the viewer complicit. To step away from that involvement into a delightful little dance feels like a cheap trick, a joke with a long build-up and a weak punch line.
The Brahms is used earlier in the film in a way that is also unearned, but it’s the kind of misuse one gets used to in films: a moment of joy and vigor is captured through second-hand means, as opposed to finding a way to capture that joy through the means at hand.
It would have been easy enough, I suppose, and probably effective, to connect directly from the cluster glisses to the Brahms, if the filmmakers had somehow felt the Brahms was necessary. But instead the Brahms slaps us out of nowhere, distancing us from what we’ve witnessed. Definitely one of the great missed opportunities of recent film scoring.