The film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo lasts 158 minutes. Its accompanying soundtrack lasts 173 minutes—and that’s pared down from the more than three hours of music Trent Reznor and collaborator/longtime Nine Inch Nails producer Atticus Ross spent a year creating for the David Fincher film. The 39-track album comprises 37 instrumental tracks created for the film’s score; only the excellent Karen O collaboration covering Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” by How To Destroy Angels—Reznor’s post-NIN band with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig—have vocals in a traditional sense. Those two songs bookend the album, with a sprawling, eerie, and effectively unsettling expanse of sound in between Karen O’s wailing and Maandig’s breathy inquiries.
“Sprawling” is the key word, both in length and musical style, which shifts from NIN-esque (“An Itch,” the Pretty Hate Machine synths of “You’re Here,” the skittering percussion, ominous piano, and wailing guitars of “A Thousand Details”) to ambient sounds (“She Reminds Me Of You,” the 2001-emulating “Perihelion,” “Under The Midnight Sun”), staticky hisses (“With The Flies,” “Cut Into Pieces”), and more. The recurring sounds include chiming bells, a low-pitched synth bed, piano, an ethereal sound that recalls a howling wind (probably not coincidence, considering the film’s setting), unusual percussion, and, in “Infiltrator,” what sounds like samples from Pac-Man.
The 2:32 “The Splinter” is fairly typical: low static with washes of sound that recall a train in the distance (also probably not coincidental, considering the film), a slight bass pulse, chimes that sound like a sampled music box, some low distortion, and static that slowly builds and ebbs. Reznor and Ross began recording before they had read the script, creating the score from an “impressionist point of view,” and it shows. They also deliberately avoided creating simple musical cues and instead focused on “chunks” or “suites” that generally last several minutes, from which Fincher could pick a segment to use in the film. The shortest track on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is 1:20, with the majority of songs hovering in the four- to five-minute range and nine going more than six minutes.
Reznor has never lacked for ambition, and the soundtrack reflects that. It’s also a slog; it can’t help but be, with so many songs, many of which occupy similar sonic space. The best film scores don’t distract from what’s happening onscreen, so on their own, they can’t help but recede into the background—especially when pushing the three-hour mark. As a cohesive album fans will play again and again, Dragon Tattoo doesn’t work. But it succeeds where it counts: making it difficult to picture Fincher’s film without Reznor and Ross’ exceptional score. The duo has already been shortlisted for an Oscar. Don’t be surprised if they win again.