Reviews - Red Dragon

Review by Bluntinstrument

I challenge anyone who plays track 3 from 2'16" to dismiss this as a minor score for Danny Elfman. It may not seem his most striking at first listen, especially when taken in one almighty 60 minute gulp, but it certainly has a firm grip of its own identity (a sure sign of strength in an Elfman score), and the composer's closely studied commentary on the DVD confirms his feelings over the need to score with both economy and care. Red dragon is a chilling film, rarely violent, reliant on its eerie-melancholy cinematic tone and the calibre of its actors to bring the atmosphere of Ratner's Hannibal Lector prequal to life. Whilst in this quest it might feel slightly hampered by an everso slightly hammy Hopkins and strangely unempathic Norton, Elfman knows he can lift this by concentrating on the deepy moving but disturbing character of Francis Dolarhyde, played by Fiennes. Elfman's interest in tortured souls and monsters shows him to be an inspired choice (not so obvious when his last collaboration with Ratner was for Family man, and when this film is a straight thriller rather than fantasy), and he brings with him two proven talents: 1. he can set the scene for a film in the opening credits like no other composer - he can bring expectation of excitement or horror even if a film is slow to build its climaxes, and since Red dragon is nothing if not a slow burner, he writes nasty music, sometimes hushed, sometimes forceful, and always with that element of mesmerising intensity; 2. he knows exactly by instinct what kind of a score will do the film most good - in this case he finds the character strengths and scores them subtlely, then for exposition-heavy scenes he deliberately lends his score a quiet urgency that helps make them more palatable.
Inside this shell of necessity (character-scoring, mood-enhancing, plot-pushing), he allows these natural forces to guide him, allowing his themes to develop with the plot, cranking up the pace where necessary, and gradually working his way to the climax where the tension set up in his main titles music is at last unleashed. The final two tracks are scintilating and intense, with the end credits suite finally proving a match for Dolores Claiborne's record for simultaneously summing up and topping a film score. The track's opening sweeps all before it and leads to an orchestral tour de force that continues to bring the themes to new places, but remains with its home sonorities of gritty-rasping-swelling brass, percussion and samples, alternately piercing and soothing violins, scurrying or moody low strings, occasionally tinkling tuned high percussion, etc. A favourite alternative to this track for effectiveness is 'The old mansion', a cue that concentrates on atmosphere, which makes a clear connection to the soundworlds of Dolores Claiborne (strings) and Extreme measures (dark thumping midi samples).
So while this score might leave some people with a headache on disc (a necessary lack of comedy or happy romance leaves some lack of contrast, but then Elfman's soundworld for this film is no less limited than Herrmann's Psycho, and the odd Herrmann quotation is occasionally caught), it is certainly an assured creature, every bit a successful contemporary Elfman score, since it successfully combines a thematic approach, a finely tuned menacing/pleading orchestral tone, and an eery ability to follow and enhance the action, emotion and reaction as close as if no other music could possibly fit better. Bernard Herrmann in spirit.
A score to be admired deeply, enjoyed with the film, and given leeway for that success when a slightly overextended CD performance seems less compelling.
Score rating: ****
CD release rating: **
Postscript: Listen out for Elfman's continuing supplety of time signature. Wheras Spider-man's main titles feature many changes between triple and duple/quadruple rhythmic structures, Red dragon occasionally drifts into 5/4 and 7/8 without losing momentum.

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