Music Composed by Christopher Young
Movie Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Movie & Soundtrack CD Release: 2008
Label: Lakeshore Records
Available also as a digital stream/download
“There are countless movies where Christopher Young has imprinted and verified his musical training and the excellent sense of drama he possesses. His quality, intelligence and aesthetics place him at the forefront of the music of the cinema of our days.”
The title of the movie refers to a murderer who, despite the considerable efforts of the FBI, is still at large because it is impossible to locate him. In the internet age, the existence of a website, related to each victim of the murderer, becomes the murder tool. Τhe faster the number of its visitors rises, the more the victim’s death is accelerated. Therefore, the visitors of the website become accomplices to a murder. How do you arrest someone that you cannot locate? You have to watch the movie in order to find this out, but, what interests the writer of the present text is summarized in another question, related to the movie “Untraceable” (2008). How do you depict in terms of music a disturbed mind that acts unseen, with the power of the internet as his main weapon?
The ways to musically approach a movie vary per case, but the composer must choose the one that he will deem as being the most effective. This is indeed the permanent concern of every composer, or, anyway, it should be, since the way you approach a soundtrack is a decision of key importance. It is the first thing that a composer does or should do. The rationale or the philosophy behind a soundtrack, can determine how less or more effective this will finally be, while the composer’s objective is always the maximization of his music’s usefulness. Always within the acceptable frameworks, as these are defined by the director, the producer and the studio, that of course have the final say. Something that someone can observe in movies of various kinds and especially in thrillers and horror movies, is the complete absence of approach. The music just exists, wherever it exists, without targeting. It lacks the necessary background, which will allow the composer to express in music the special features of the movie. The composer’s musical training and sense of drama are two tools of fundamental importance for the musical result, which are usually conspicuous by their absence.
But not in the case of the movie “Untraceable”, the score of which was signed by Christopher Young, a composer who, since over three decades, has proved his great ability to translate every cinematic condition he is called upon to undertake into musical notes. There are countless movies where Christopher Young has imprinted and verified his musical training and the excellent sense of drama he possesses. With brilliant results in all kinds of movies with which he was engaged, however, the movies for which he is mostly preferred by many directors and producers, and, in view of the outcome, not at all unfairly, are the ones related to suspense and horror.
With a murderer killing his victims one after the other, with a website as a murder weapon, and an FBI agent (Diane Lane) pursuing him, where will the music focus and how will it highlight the pulse of the movie? First of all, the music is performed by an orchestra, something that is not self-evident, especially in such movies. This is emphasized in order to clarify that it is not a question of sound design being sold as music. In order to bring out the atmosphere of threat, morbidity, disorder, and anxiety that prevails in the movie, the composer gives weight to the strings of the orchestra, from which he draws various sound effects that strengthen the dark and cold personality of the music. The role of electronic sounds, which in this particular movie acquire a purpose, is distinct, but without exaggerations. The internet status of the murderer is strong in the plot of the movie, so the use of such sounds can only be positively perceived. And then comes the central character of the movie, the FBI agent pursuing the murderer…
In the opening credits of the movie, in “Untraceable” (#1), a motif appears at 0:28, which is performed by a piano and is later repeated, both in the same track and more extensively in the rest of the soundtrack. It is the dominant musical signature and symbolizes the woman FBI agent. When hearing the motif, the listener finds out that it contains a contradiction: on the one hand, it is performed by a warm musical instrument, like the piano, which is usually identified with beauty and tenderness, but on the other hand, the motif, as a composition, refers to something totally else, to mystery. In the opening credits, we see the FBI agent arriving to the building where her job is housed, greeting her colleagues and sitting at her desk. The motif, as a composition, highlights her profession, the fight against crime. That’s why it exudes anxiety, stress and coldness. She deals with crime through the screen of her computer, so there is a safety distance from the criminals. She by herself is not involved in any physical action, so the music does not have to depict suspense, adventure or horror, but has what it needs, a cold beauty.
If we consider that in a soundtrack of a police thriller like this, the cold and threatening strings prevail, then the decision for a piano motif that often appears is deemed as smart, since in this way it is highlighted through the entire music, it stands out. The above musical approach of the composer Christopher Young, with the piano at the center of attention, seems to have paid off in practice, since it is not the first time that he follows it. There are more police thriller movies in his filmography, where a female main character is pursued by a murderer. Both the exemplary soundtracks of the movies “Jennifer 8” (1992) and “Copycat” (1995), use the piano in a mysterious way. Occasionally, the motif of the FBI agent is performed by a guitar, as at the beginning of “Missing Flowers” (#2). The musical continuation in this track brings a new theme that is once again performed by a piano, as revealed at 0:32, but now the coldness of the previous motif is absent. The FBI agent comes home from work, where her mother and daughter are waiting for her. The music leaves her professional environment and the mystery it contains, and it becomes sweet and tender. The new theme lacks any contradiction, it does not depict an FBI agent, but a woman experiencing her family life.
From very early, long before the development of the cinema and its music, one of the greatest pillars of a yet immature art at the time, the producer, director and screenwriter D.W. Griffith had realized the importance of music, by saying that music defines the atmosphere for what the eyes see, it leads the feelings, and it is the sentimental outline of the visual stimuli of the movie. Nothing truer, however, we often forget that apart from the feeling, music can be useful in something else as well. In giving the viewer an information, which can be less or more important, depending on the timing at which it is given. This information sometimes may reinforce an assumption that some of the viewers probably make based on the footage and sometimes it may disclose something totally new, that the footage is not able to reveal. We return to the movie, with the camera recording outside the house through a window the FBI agent along with her mother and daughter enjoying all together their dinner. The scene is accompanied by music, but not the one someone would expect, namely the one of family joy and warmth, like perhaps the family motif. At this point, the composer wanted to make a revelation, to those viewers who are able to understand it. The music that accompanies this scene, just a few seconds in duration, consists of foggy violins and soft playing of the piano, intentionally revealing to the viewer an information about someone that we do not see but is undoubtedly present: someone is stalking the FBI agent at her house and this could be only one, the murderer! Shortly afterwards, the music of the same atmosphere is repeated while we are seeing the FBI agent from outside at the window of the bedroom. The repeat helps the viewer realize that something is going on here, if this was not understood in the previous scene. Without this music, it would be probably impossible for the viewer to understand that the agent is being stalked.
The stalking music can be found at the beginning of “Death After Life After Death” (#3) until 0:24. It will be repeated for a third time when the murderer sets a camera on a car, which will stream the house of the FBI agent on his website. The agent’s daughter sees on the computer’s screen the live streaming from her house and full of curiosity attempts to get out to see what is happening, while her mother has no idea of her action, since she is in the bathroom. When the agent realizes what has happened, she takes her gun and runs towards the entrance of her house in order to find her daughter. The composer attempts to convey the anguish of the mother, at 0:25 to 0:57, who dreads the idea that the murderer may have snatched her daughter, with the violins defining tension, and with the involvement of her motif in the piano, since the situation affects her directly. From 0:58 until 1:50, we have one more suspenseful development of the music, until the agent realizes what has happened and the police comes. The violins do not leave any room for misinterpretation, with every passing second the anticipation for the outcome of the scene is growing and the threat is getting closer and closer, until the body of the last victim is traced in the car boot. The shocking finding that the murderer was outside her house and that her daughter was almost in danger, is depicted in the music from the point 1:51 until the end of “Death After Life After Death” (#3), where we have for the first time a different performance of the agent’s motif by the piano. The characteristic pause of the performance in the middle of the motif and the slower tempo in the playing, denote the impact that all the above facts had on the FBI agent’s psyche, which has now changed.
In the cold atmosphere of musical anxiety that prevails in the soundtrack, there are moments where the sense of threat is intensified by the music, when the vicious and heinous plans of the murderer take place on live streaming. Indicative is the track “Acid Decomposition” (#5), which contains the music of the murder of one more victim, who has been placed tied in water, in which gradually, depending on the increase of the website’s traffic, acid is released. The FBI agent along with her colleagues is watching the streaming of the process and is decisively involved in the effort to draw information from the live streaming on the murderer’s website. Her motif returns here as well and it usually works as a bridge between the strings that on the one hand express anxiety and on the other hand work as a countdown for the atrocious death of the victim. At the end of the track, the differentiated performance of her motif returns, which shows the impact of the fact that preceded on her.
The musical content of the track “Blinking the Code” (#10) does not correspond to its title and in fact it is found nowhere in the movie. The most likely guess that can be made is that this track is a first suggestion of the composer for the scene of the murder that was just mentioned, which was finally rejected. The difference is that the music in this track adopts a new motif of horror and revulsion performed by the strings, it becomes even more descriptive, it is like it is conveying to the viewer the sense of asphyxiation and pain experienced by the victim of the murderer, as the acid is gradually burning his naked body. At the end of the track, as usual, the agent’s motif with the piano appears. The reason that a different version was preferred, namely “Acid Decomposition” (#5) instead of “Blinking the Code” (#10), is maybe because the first one is more aptly adjusted to what is happening during the murder. However, it must be said that these are two of the best tracks of the soundtrack and it is interesting to observe two alternative approaches for the same scene. In “Kill With Me” (#11), we have the music from the closing credits of the movie, where for the last time the two motifs related to the FBI agent are repeated, the motif concerning her professional capacity and the theme of her family life. The fact that the one of the two prevails over the other, with more performances in this track, is indicative as to what will be the ending of the story.
To conclude the impressions from the soundtrack of the movie “Untraceable”, what is worth mentioning is that nothing has been left to chance. The main problem that is observed many times in such movies nowadays is the absolute absence of identity that is usually related to the cacophony of the music. In other words, the problem is the sound design that usually ends up sonic noise, when the most frightening moments come. The composer Christopher Young, on the contrary, writes music that has a personality, architecture, and he uses it in the most effective way. His quality, intelligence and aesthetics place him at the forefront of the music of the cinema of our days. His experience is valuable for every director that will have the cleverness and the essential maturity to trust him. Because when you choose a composer, you do so because you want to benefit from his personal stamp. Composers with impressive abilities, instinct and love for what they do, like Christopher Young, are a shining example, with their music demonstrating the distinction between the mature one and the amateur, between the music that you call art and elevates the movie for which it is written and the music that insults intelligence, lacks soul and is characterized by an annoying resemblance to many others.
01. Untraceable (2:19)
02. Missing Flowers (2:39)
03. Death After Life After Death (2:32)
04. Session Locked (6:30)
05. Acid Decomposition (5:25)
06. Gouldylocks (2:27)
07. Viewer Executioners (4:07)
08. Net Nuts (2:42)
09. Incinerated in Cement (7:17)
10. Blinking the Code (4:44)
11. Kill with Me (4:15)
Total Time: 46:13
The tracks that stand out are noted with bold letters
Score Rating: * * * *