All great directors have certain hallmarks, especially when it comes to scoring. Most forge long-term symbiotic relationships, which tend to haunt Hollywood for decades: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann; Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone; Steven Spielberg and John Williams; Peter Jackson and Howard Shore; David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti; Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer… the list could go on and on. For New York actor-turned-director Peter Berg, his signatures have really taken shape as of late, everything from shaky, documentary-styled camerawork, to subtle homages toward the great state of Texas, and, of course, the heart-warming inclusion of Austin post-rockers Explosions in the Sky.
In 2004, the director brought the outfit to the mainstream spotlight with 2004’s Friday Night Lights and its subsequent television series that lasted from 2006 to 2011. Now, he’s tagged the Texans again, paired them up with Michael Bay’s go-to composer, Steve Jablonsky, and sent them overseas to Afghanistan for the true story military drama, Lone Survivor.
Don’t let that last line ward you off. Not only is Lone Survivor an exceptional film — in fact, it’s one of Berg’s strongest to date — but the interconnection between Explosions in the Sky and Jablonsky was minor at best. As Berg told Variety, “[Jablonsky] did the last reel; the band Explosions in the Sky did pretty much everything else,” adding: “I didn’t want the score to be overly aggressive, I wanted it to be haunting and emotional. Steve Jablonsky came in at the end to do something more traditional, but when Steve does ‘traditional,’ it’s not the usual strings. He created a wonderful sound at the very end.” What he did was supplement the rockers with a few action pieces like “The Goat Herders”, “47 Down”, “Letter Received/Taliban Attacks”, and their heroic pairing on the title track. Outside of this, it’s really Explosions’ album, and once again, they inject all the aural emotionalism that has glazed their iconic discography.
In a way, their work on Lone Survivor feels like a spiritual sequel to 2003’s The Earth Is Not a Cold Dark Place, which, of course, was sourced heavily for Friday Night Lights. Early track “Waking Up” sounds exactly as the title implies, the ambient guitar picking fluttering like sleepy eyelids warming up to the rising sun. Once the lead rings in at 55 seconds, the notes yawn, twist, and turn before rising up to gallop over the marching percussion. Fans will no doubt recall similar builds in “First Breath After Coma” or “Your Hand in Mine”. This same drive resurfaces on “Murphy’s Ridge”, which soundtracks one of the most gripping scenes in the film, only this time they kick into the distortion that embalmed much of 2001’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever.
Although it’s more or less a survival tale, the film’s core themes of commitment and brotherhood speak loudest, especially as the four-man reconnaissance and surveillance team starts to fall apart one by one. Much the way they captured the humble isolation of David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche last year, Explosions rope in the character’s feelings of aggression, paranoia, separation, and courage. The menacing piano on “Checkpoints”, the stick percussion on “False Summit”, the abyssal reverb on “Axe”, and the halycon synths of “Hunted” layer an already intense portrait laid out by Berg with bone-crunching detail. Literally.
Lone Survivor was a sleeper hit for January, a month that’s always been a cinematic graveyard for the industry. Whether or not Mark Wahlberg’s name and mug on the posters had anything to do with that success, I don’t know. However, the film itself works because it’s the first military drama in years that’s honest about the war at hand, though without any pretension. Instead, the film savors the meaty parts of everyone’s favorite war epics — a compelling story, some great characters worth fighting for, and a tension that rivals summer’s most expensive blockbusters. But it also has heart, something that few films in this genre ever have, and much of that comes from some 100% American post-rock. Texas forever, indeed.
Essential Tracks: “Waking Up”, “Murphy’s Ridge”, and “Never, Never, Never Give Up”