Hildur Guðnadóttir has composed a dark, ominous and rather unsettling sound for Joker, a score that simply terrifies in its atmosphere.
The album begins with Hoyt’s Office, and the rather disturbing tone of pretty much the entire score is established straight away with the arrival of these dark, moody and rather depressing strings. After a few seconds, what I’m fairly certain is the main theme of the score is then played – it’s hard to tell given the sheer ambience of Guðnadóttir’s music here. This is a soundtrack very clearly aimed at atmosphere rather than traditional themes. Much like the now established soundscape, the “theme” is a solemn piece, consisting of just a few drawn-out and quite bleak-sounding cello notes. Despite its simplicity however it’s hard to deny how effective it is – the music washes over you with this feeling of just utter…unsettlement that actually makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Subsequent track Defeated Clown then introduces another rather intriguing instrumental element into the score – these deep, methodical, almost lumbering drums. The cello from the previous cue then returns with the main theme and together these two pieces of orchestra make for a truly spine-chilling two-and-a-half-minute musical experience. The key to this rather masterful sense of suspense I think lies in the sheer simplicity of the music, and it’s an element that recurs throughout the rest of the album. Following Sophie is a great example of this, opening with the same ominous percussion but then gradually increasing the volume and intensity with backing strings, which starts to push the score into more threatening-sounding territory while still keeping the simplicity of the instrumentation.
Meeting Bruce Wayne continues with the newly-intensified backing percussion, once again utilising the primarily cello-based main theme to continue the extremely sinister musical atmosphere established so far. There’s a slightly metallic-sounding edge to the percussion now, which lurks in the background for the opening minute or so before then being brought front and centre at about the two minute mark in combination with the now increasingly-tense strings. A Bad Comedian then slows things down a tad, returning the score to its earlier solo cello roots before the intensity then returns with a vengeance in Arthur Comes To Sophie – the lumbering drums are back and louder than ever, with the cello accompanied by even more backing strings to deliver a particularly unnerving track overall.
The pace quickens in Penny Taken To The Hospital, with rapid strings now taking the musical forefront in combination with the now heavily established solemn-sounding cello. Interestingly, the main theme is entirely absent here, with said cello now playing more into intense atmosphere rather than thematic continuation. Without the theme to hold onto the score then sinks further into darkness with Subway, a track that opens with almost horror-esque strings before then reintroducing the methodical and imposing drums from earlier cues. Things then almost peak with Bathroom Dance, where the cello-based main theme now returns darker than ever before, this time with solemn vocals and deep, threatening strings lurking in the background to really emphasize the ever-increasing grip that evil seems to hold over this score.
The album begins to near its conclusion with Escape From The Train, an almost action cue that plays heavily with rapid, intense strings and dramatic, fast-paced percussion that steps considerably away from the established lumbering drums. The atmosphere leans heavily into unsettlement here, and the main theme is once again entirely absent. It’s with subsequent (and standout) cue Call Me Joker where things then really come to a head, with the methodical drums and thematic cello making their last and indeed most impending-doom-esque appearance. The frantic strings from earlier appear briefly before the cello and accompanying percussion take over entirely for the final minute, this time with dramatic and deeply sombre brass to really drive home the music’s newfound malevolence before the album then ends.
Overall, I’m in two minds about this particular soundtrack. On the one hand, Guðnadóttir has created this wonderfully creepy and disturbing musical world for the Joker, and at points it is genuinely unsettling to listen to. The score particularly nails the “descent into darkness” aspect of the movie, and you almost feel that the music itself is turning evil over the course of the album’s forty minute runtime. Therein however lies the other hand – in my opinion, this particular style of score doesn’t really work as an album experience. It consists pretty much entirely of just depressing and suspenseful strings-based atmospheric buildup, which while likely (as I haven’t yet seen the movie) works really well in the film, sadly I find entertains far less as a standalone experience.
The atmosphere is incredible, but thematically and enjoyability-wise, I do find it lacking.
Standout Cue: 17. Call Me Joker