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The Hand That Themes

Nine Inch Nails creator Trent Reznor has crafted some of the decade’s most iconic scores alongside Atticus Ross. Now, the men who won an Academy Award for their work on ‘The Social Network’ are back with some of their most gripping film work in ‘Waves’ and ‘Watchmen.’

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Spoiler warning

Trey Edward Shults, writer-director of the harrowing and disconcertingly lovely new teen drama Waves, gave the two men he’d hired to compose the score some very simple instructions: “I was like, ‘My dream is if you could give me the most terrifying and scary shit you’ve done, and the most beautiful shit you’ve done.” The bad news, for connoisseurs of scary shit, is also the good news: The two men scoring his film were Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. They delivered. They always do. Their consistency is downright terrifying.

Which explains—with all apologies to Midsommar, or Us, or even The Lighthouse—why the single most upsetting and anxiety-inducing movie scene of 2019 takes place at a high school wrestling match. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a darkly charismatic senior with two loving but hard-driving parents (Renée Elise Goldsberry and Sterling K. Brown), a reserved younger sister named Emily (Taylor Russell), and a girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), who is programmed into his phone as “Goddess.” He trains hard and parties harder (“I can’t open my eyes!” he screams while hanging out the window of a moving car) to a euphoric, pulverizing pop soundtrack that spans from Tame Impala to myriad elegiac Frank Ocean jams to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backstreet Freestyle” to, when his pill-popping darkness fully overpowers his charisma, Kanye West’s “I Am a God.” Maybe go get some more popcorn when that song hits. Maybe don’t come back.

But early on, following an MRI conducted to the woozy strains of A$AP Rocky, Tyler gets some very bad news, and typically, when Very Bad News hits, it’s Reznor and Ross time. A woozy goth-ambient blur that hardens and intensifies, with a shrill cacophony piercing your ears (the sonorous shriek of what sounds like a haunted house’s rusted gate is particularly effective) while the droning bass bores into your gut. And then, a blood-simple, three-note piano melody, gently ascending in a ferociously ominous manner, portending the downward spiral to come. For those who’ve worshipped Reznor as an industrial-rock god for three decades—Pretty Hate Machine, his candy-coated and utterly enraged debut as Nine Inch Nails, celebrated its 30th birthday in October—it’s all warmly familiar and yet as vividly blood-freezing as his music was from the very start.

And now Tyler hits the mat, with his nervous family cheering from the stands, and the drone and the shrieks and the haunted-house menace are all back, with the wrestlers’ grunts providing extra percussion and little gasping melodies of their own. And now Tyler’s sobbing in his mother’s arms, adding to the cacophony. The next hour or so of Waves will be an alluringly cruel aria of increasingly drastic Very Bad News, and for all the autobiographical aspects of Shults’s third film—the wrestling injury, the anger issues, the interfamilial strife—Reznor’s creeping-to-towering sonic presence, a blaring alarm that somehow doubles as a soothing balm, might be the most vital and upsetting through-line.

“When I tore my shoulder in high school wrestling, I remember getting back into movies and making weird, like, videos in my backyard, just listening to Nine Inch Nails,” Shults tells me, chatting on the phone last week. This does not sound, in the classic sense of the word, healthy—a wounded but still presumably fearsomely musclebound teenage boy consoling himself with self-annihilating mega-anthems like “Happiness in Slavery” or “March of the Pigs” or “Starfuckers, Inc.” But it worked for (a not at all fearsomely musclebound) me, and it worked for Shults, too.

“It was a channel for those emotions and feelings, an outlet,” he says now. “I think if you don’t have an outlet it’s more unhealthy. As crazy or nihilistic or whatever as that stuff can be, it is ultimately a way to channel that stuff.”

Shults debuted as a writer-director with 2015’s addiction melodrama Krisha and quickly returned with 2017’s postapocalyptic horror tale It Comes at Night; what’s scarier than either of those movies is that he’s only 31, and thus was barely out of his teens when Reznor got into film work himself. Nine Inch Nails, as ’90s alt-rock giants primed for both rock and pop music’s slow mutation toward an ever more sensual and sinister and electronic sound, are still very much a going concern: The group, which as always consists of Reznor and whomever else he deigns to include, released three splendid EPs between 2016 and 2018, with the middle installment helpfully titled Add Violence.

But always alongside Ross—a crucial NIN presence since 2005’s With Teeth—Reznor has lately enjoyed greater prominence as a film and TV composer, starting with the duo’s gorgeously moody Oscar-winning score for David Fincher’s 2010 all-timer The Social Network. A theoretically mundane movie scene I think about an awful lot is that film’s credit sequence, its mundanity (a young and unknown Mark Zuckerberg scuttles across Harvard’s campus) elevated to something eerie and momentous via a gentler version of the drone-plus-piano dread (the track is called “Hand Covers Bruise”) that now helps turn Waves into an unforgettably beautiful nightmare. Reznor was born for this. The seething “Head Like a Hole” guy and the tuxedo-clad “handed an Oscar by Nicole Kidman” guy were always, somehow, the same guy.

The Reznor & Ross filmography expanded quickly, with a couple more openly malevolent Fincher jams (2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and 2014’s arguably gnarlier Gone Girl) giving way to odder contexts that, impressively, still somehow fit, like the 2017 Ken Burns/Lynn Novick doc series The Vietnam War. In 2018 they applied a (relatively) more upbeat gloss to Jonah Hill’s Mid90s; later that year, they gave the memetastic Netflix phenom Bird Box a more graceful and subtle horror-flick soundtrack than it maybe deserved.

Shults, as big a fan as he was, did not seek the duo out; the reverse, actually. “I got one of the coolest emails of my life,” he recalls, “where Trent’s agent sent an email saying, ‘Trent Reznor is a fan and wants to meet.’” Turns out the extremely famous frontman for Nine Inch Nails caught the claustrophobic It Comes at Night in the theater with his wife and loved it. (Taking your wife to see It Comes at Night in the theater is the most “2010’s Trent Reznor” activity imaginable.) Shults was astounded and flattered, and soon passed on an early draft of the Waves script, along with, by request, a detailed explanation of his feelings and motivations and such, which is to say “just, like, a huge, long vomit email of trying to get them inside my brain like they asked.”

The climactic piece of Very Bad News in Waves is delivered shortly after Kanye’s “I Am a God” kicks in, and Ross and Reznor grab that baton and provide a maximalist near-atonal freakout worthy of the catastrophe that follows. It’s both exquisite and unbearable. Nine Inch Nails devotees have had 30 years to prepare for a moment of terror that pure, but central to the Trent Reznor experience is that nothing and no one, really, can prepare you for what happens when that downward spiral finally, abruptly, violently ends. Not even him.


Waves, which opened Friday in limited release, is a tough sell both emotionally and by dint of the fact that it’s a long, grueling movie with no superheroes in it that you have to go see in an actual movie theater. The more prominent and harmonious Reznor & Ross excursion of 2019, therefore, is HBO’s Watchmen, an absurdly and deliciously perfect fusion of sound and vision, and indeed the perfect synthesis of “I wanna fuck you like an animal” Trent and “I’d like to especially thank the Academy” Trent.

The classic gloomy synth riff as Regina King, a.k.a. Angela Abar, a.k.a. the fearsome costumed hero Sister Night, suits up in her secret hideout. The nearly funky industrial-dance-party drums that didn’t get much play in, say, that Ken Burns documentary. The classic rumbling bass line as Sister Night’s car hits the road; the classic distorted guitar riff as she dumps a murder suspect in her trunk. The fact that this particular piece of music is called “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN.”

Glorious. As a stand-alone experience, the Waves score might very well be, just as Shults requested, the single most frightening collection of music Reznor has ever been involved with. But the ever-growing Watchmen soundtrack—“NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN” is blessedly available on vinyl, in the first of three deluxe packages due out this year—doubles as a fantastic series of Nine Inch Nails albums, lithe and lethal and fun in a deliriously malevolent sort of way, whether the current track in question is designed to soundtrack a Looking Glass interrogation or a cow-shredding gunfight. (That one’s called “KATTLE BATTLE.”)

It is startling, even as a near-lifelong fan, how clearly and forcefully one can hear Reznor’s voice in his soundtrack work without actually hearing, well, Reznor’s physical voice screaming such timeless wounded battle cries as “You’re going to get what you deserve” and “Nothing can stop me now” and “Too fucked up to care anymore.” He’s an icon, a brand, an institution; his thoughts on Nine Inch Nails’ someday entering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have evolved from “I honestly couldn’t give less of a shit” to a polite concession that perhaps that was “unnecessarily bitchy.” The other surviving alt-rock gods I worshipped as an angsty mid-’90s teen, from Corgan to Cuomo, are constantly at war with their own legacies, struggling to reconcile who they were with who they think they are. Nobody would’ve picked Reznor as the guy to go straight—or at least put on the occasional tux—but still retain every ounce of the elegant brutality that made him a figure worth worshipping in the first place.

Ah, yes, and also, a SoundCloud striver named Lil Nas X sampled a fairly random 2008 Nine Inch Nails track and turned it into a monolithic, records-smashing pop single that nearly ate 2019 whole. The other rad thing about the Watchmen score is it’s likely the closest we’ll get in this century to Reznor’s legit pop-star roots: These tracks have the captivating shape and propulsion and stickiness of the tunes that unfathomably dominated ’90s radio and MTV.

But that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say to—or say with—actual current pop music, which Waves offers in overwhelming droves: The Frank Ocean cues alone are a bruising emotional journey. But Reznor and Ross hang in there. When two increasingly doomed teenage lovers are first reconciling and then battling anew over text message, the sonic backdrop shifts from H.E.R.’s slow jam “Focus” to a bruisingly familiar drone-and-shriek interlude and quickly back again. The juxtaposition shouldn’t work. But it’s just dissonant enough to be just right.

Shults has described Waves as a panic attack followed by a hug; it is, for the record, safe to say that Reznor is far more of a panic attack guy than a hug guy. Indeed, after the very worst happens and it sure as hell seems like the movie is over, Waves’ focus instead shifts to Taylor Russell as the reserved sister, and Lucas Hedges takes center stage as a tentative love interest, and the two start bonding over their shared love of Animal Collective, and suddenly there’s still 45 minutes left to go, wherein the Reznor & Ross score takes on a far less prominent role. It’s not that the duo couldn’t supply the career-topping beauty their director had requested, also, but as Shults puts it, where beautiful music is concerned, “It can be really powerful when you don’t use it.”

This more hopeful second half of Waves peaks, instead, with “True Love Waits” from our old friends Radiohead, forever the gold standard in terms of ’90s rock gods now conscripted to soundtrack virtually every major movie and TV show you can think of. But bracing little bursts of the time-honored Trent Reznor experience—from the soft piano to the shattering sub-bass—still sneak into the movie’s cracks, darkening the corners even amid a tentative dawn. It is startling how good he is at painting an unsettling world. It is even more startling how many disparate worlds he’s still finding to thrive in.