“The acceptance of death is the source of all life.” –John Cage (Juilliard Lecture)
“…the revelation takes place now, here, for the first time, but the image that is present to us here and for the first time is the presence of an ‘already other time’…” ‐Maurice Blanchot (The Experience of Proust)
“It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny.” –André Bazin (The Ontology of the Photographic Image)
The Descent is not about a bunch of blind, creepy subterranean creatures pouncing on a group of women who mistakenly venture into their territory in search of an unmapped cave system. Yes, that’s the plot, but that’s not what it is about. The particular arrangement of images, sound and music speaks to another narrative; a reel whose time has been metamorphosed into an “ideal world in the likeness of the real”.
The score was composed by David Julyan. Best known for his work with Christopher Nolan on Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige; he is, in some regards, an odd choice for a summer monster movie. His music is atmospheric, dealing mostly with internal conflict. His minimalist music and ideas allow for a transcendental experience. He is rarely a composer of combative, motivating music and with exception to a few pieces in The Descent, he sticks to his repertoire throughout.
The music here has three key ingredients: brass, strings and percussion. Blending styles of Howard Shore and Elliot Goldenthaal (specifically The Silence of the Lambs & Alien 3, which both importantly feature a strong female lead surrounded by hostile societies) each part plays a role transforming the past, present and future into a narrative the audience can follow. This narrative is not so much of violence, but of the aftermath, the void of ‘recovery’.
Starting with the prologue, the images speak to a penetrative trauma. A blunt object flies through a window killing Sarah’s primary connections: husband and child. Blood is everywhere and she is left disconnected from the world around her. She can no longer relate her experience of living to those who have not experienced it themselves.
Cut to some time later and you have a group of friends trying to bring her out of what they consider her ‘funk’. Unable to relate, they see her situation as something that can be overcome and maintain their distance accordingly, as if what has happened to her can be contracted. She is coded with a violence they need to avoid.
Julyan’s music speaks to this violence. His ambient orchestrations provide a way into the images, to see through them past the reel. The score is part of a code to understanding that this is no mere horror film to excite and distract, but something of an experience and societal comment.
Any other composer, especially one with more experience in the horror genre, may have propelled the film forward and created something we have grown to expect. Julyan understood the true horrors of this film and didn’t need to amplify them any more. Rather, he provides something distant, angelic and contemplative, speaking to the narrative buried beneath the surface.
Find sample here:
Garrett D. Tiedemann 1/5/12