Mark Zuckerberg walks out of a bar. He’s just been absolutely ethered in The Social Network’s infamous opening scene, but all that wordiness and vitriol dissipates into empty air. He takes off through the dark streets on a peaceful Cambridge night circa 2003. A dull sawing sound is undercut by the hum of the city, car horns and sirens and Zuckerberg’s sandals flip-flopping against the pavement. A piano plinks intermittently, turns into a pounding synth and then back again. The keys feel listless and frustrated; the synths are more determined. They are both leading to an idea, one that would transform society as we know it for better and, mostly, for worse.
As Zuckerberg rushes to his dorm room to start Facebook, we get our introduction to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film composers, and what an introduction it is. “Hand Covers Bruise,” the track that works its way through The Social Network’s opening credits sequence, is stunningly restrained. It’s eerie and still — just like the shots that David Fincher uses to establish the Harvard campus, all filmed surreptitiously because the school would not let them film on location — but it carries a heavy weight.
Reznor and Ross were getting into the psyche of Mark Zuckerberg, or at least the Facebook founder as Fincher and Aaron Sorkin envisioned him: creatively unfulfilled and maniacally, probably sociopathically brilliant. In just a couple minutes, the composing team establish what has made them this past decade’s most in-demand, accomplished, and influential movie scorers.
Their first film score came out only a decade ago, and it already feels as though they’ve taken over the scoring world. Since The Social Network was released in 2010, Reznor and Ross have gone on to score more Fincher-directed films — The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the upcoming Mank — and have lent their talents to a wide array of projects, from the Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War to A24-core such as Mid90s and Waves. Their most prominent work — and probably most impressive since The Social Network — came last year with their stellar turn on HBO’s Watchmen. In a few months, they’ll release their first score with animation titans Pixar for the jazz-influenced Soul.
Reznor and Ross have been rewarded handsomely for their talent, picking up an Oscar, a Grammy, and most recently an Emmy for their soundtracks, leaving them one Tony short of the coveted EGOT. The two of them are perhaps an unlikely pairing to gain such a foothold in the movie world. Electronic and rock musicians have dabbled in film before, but often their work has been relegated to cult and genre films, not movies that have a serious shot at a Best Picture nomination. They’re among the few musicians who can make a movie score feel like an event.
And their reign began with The Social Network just 10 years ago. Ross had already done a handful of scores on his own prior to The Social Network, striking up a creative partnership with directors Albert and Allen Hughes. Reznor had, of course, a lot of experience making intense soundscapes through the aggressive sweep of Nine Inch Nails, including a fondly-remembered soundtrack for the 1996 video game Quake. Reznor and Ross began working together in the early 2000s when Ross became first an engineer, then a producer, and eventually a member of Reznor’s boundary-pushing rock project.
It makes sense that they would find a kindred spirit in David Fincher, who has been making smart thrillers that are conventional but formally restrained since the ’90s. Fincher has an exacting vision, and Reznor and Ross were able to adapt to his drive, working well within the constraints of a big-budget motion picture. Especially for their first time out, being around a well-oiled machine was a boon. “It was us learning on the fly, but being surrounded by a camp of people that were functioning at the highest level of excellence,” Reznor reflected in an interview a couple years ago. “And we didn’t want to be the ones that fucked it up.”
The Social Network is an odd movie to have such an iconic score. Propelled by Aaron Sorkin’s hyperactive script, there aren’t many opportunities for Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack to be the center of attention, but they use every big moment they get wisely. Their showiest sequences are toward the beginning of the film, in the scenes chronicling Zuckerberg’s late-night drunken creation of FaceMash. “In Motion” accompanies a debaucherous montage that establishes the smooth reality of Harvard’s elite finals clubs, thumping and cool, in contrast to the seemingly innocent nerds writing equations on their dorm room window, which is soundtracked by the textural and guitar-forward “A Familiar Taste.”
Their score is a persistent source of simmering tension in the movie, even when it’s only buzzing away in the background. “The Gentle Hum Of Anxiety,” one of the soundtrack’s more impressive standalone compositions, is an appropriate name for their score as a whole. Reznor and Ross’ scoring work is often built around persistent iterations on a theme — they manipulate sounds by modulating them up and down, circling around the same few notes as a way to ramp up the pressure slowly.
The general eeriness of The Social Network’s score feels prescient considering how large and chaotic a role Facebook would go on to play in disinformation politics. “When we were creating these ideas, we weren’t scene specific. We thought, ‘This could be the sound of an asteroid hitting the Earth at the end of humanity,'” Reznor half-joked back in 2011. “But I don’t know if that fits in with the tale of founding Facebook, when someone finds out someone stole their website. Is that the appropriate level of drama, or is it comically overdone?”
It was not comically overdone. The wannabe frat boy antics of the real people behind The Social Network has changed the face of the world. Reznor and Ross made a story about geeks seem grand and imbued their technological developments with a hubris that rings true. Fincher and Sorkin made a story about a character that viewers could almost empathize with; Reznor and Ross’ score seems, purposefully or not, to act in opposition to that. It constantly sounds as if the world of the film is on the precipice of disaster, which turned out to be accurate.
That might not have been their intention: “I could relate to the character on the page of Mark Zuckerberg,” Reznor said in a 2018 interview. “To the feeling of somebody that believed in something so much and maybe went to any length to get it to work and then realized, well, maybe I fucked some people over in the process, and that weird sense of unfulfillment or melancholy.” Considering Reznor’s own storied history of being a difficult genius, the scathing and icily confident music he created for The Social Network has a deep thematic resonance.
Before Reznor and Ross came along, your typical movie score did not sound like this. There were outliers, of course, many of them inspirations for The Social Network: Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner, Goblin’s run on horror scores in the ’70s, Tangerine Dream’s similar dominance of moody thrillers during the ’80s. But The Social Network signified a shift away from orchestral scores for a certain kind of prestige film. They opened up a wider lane for musicians who might have started in rock music to cross over into the film world more easily. The kinds of scores that Reznor and Ross make are a far cry from the John Williamses and Hans Zimmers of the world.
Their fingerprints are all over some of the most critically-acclaimed scores from the last 10 years, from Mica Levi’s terse and haunting work on Jackie and Under The Skin to Daniel Lopatin’s pulse-pounding team-ups with the Safdie brothers. Nicolas Britell’s classically grand Succession score feels like it’s in direct conversation with The Social Network’s masterful “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” boat regatta sequence. (Britell was also nominated for an Oscar twice, for his scores on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.)
Now it feels as if a lot of films are aiming for the style of detached coolness that threads itself through The Social Network and the rest of their scoring oeuvre. Though I doubt Reznor and Ross were involved in the decision, the stripped-down cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” featured in The Social Network’s first trailer would go on to cause almost every single trailer, from superhero movie on down, to have a slowed-down cover in it. It’s indicative of their influence in a larger sense — that trick, despite how watered-down and inescapable it has become, gets at some of what’s so magical about the scores that Reznor and Ross create. Their scores are disorienting, like a familiar hit thrown off its axis, fraught with tension and pathos and moments of sheer beauty that often do so much with so little.
Reznor and Ross have not slowed down. They’ve periodically revisited Nine Inch Nails throughout the last decade, but their main focus seems to have shifted to their movie scores. Their soundtracks are standalone works and, though they’re always in service of whatever movie or show they’re composed for, almost every Reznor and Ross score feels a significant achievement all on its own. It was apparent from those first few moments of The Social Network that Reznor and Ross had hit on to something special. We just didn’t how special and important they would be.