The Life Before Her Eyes
Ukrainian writer/director Vadim Perelman burst onto the scene in 2003 with his debut feature film House of Sand and Fog, a well made but ultimately flawed adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel of the same name. The film garnered a lot of praise by the critics (especially for its strong performances), as well as several Academy Award nominations. One of these nominations went to James Horner for his original music, who was part of the major talent that was also employed behind the camera. Sitting in the Kodak Theatre that Oscar night, Horner certainly must have thought back a moment to when he first became involved in this project, and about how everything worked out that way. As Perelman himself would later state in an interview ( The Film Freak Central Interviews Director Vadim Perelman), he hadn’t really been impressed by what he had heard of Horner’s more dramatic and emphatic music before, but Horner was obviously eager to score the film and somehow managed to convince Perelman that he can also deliver the more subtle approach that the director preferred.
The final product quite obviously erased Perelman’s last doubts about Horner’s abilities, because four years after the success of House of Sand and Fog, Horner returns for Perelman’s follow-up, The Life Before Her Eyes, again an adaptation of a dramatic and personal novel, this time by Laura Kasischke. The story revolves around Diana (Uma Thurman), a wife and mother who sees her idyllic, suburban life starting to be disrupted by memories of a terrible incident in her past: as the 15th anniversary of a tragic, Columbine-like high school shooting that she had witnessed approaches, the film shows in flashbacks Diana’s teenage life (her younger self played by Evan Rachel Wood) in the days leading to this fateful day, and starts to reveal a deeper truth that lies within the mysteries surrounding the horrible event. Whether Perelman has managed to meet the high expectations that he himself created with his debut still remains to be seen at the point of writing. Horner, at least, pretty much stayed true to where he left off with House of Sand and Fog, again obliging to Perelman’s wish for restraint, this time abandoning an orchestra all together and instead focusing primarily on writing for piano and electronics.
The beginning of the album already sets the tone for what is to come, with a gentle piano (performed by Horner himself) over synthetic textures. The latter are reminiscent in parts of House of Sand and Fog, but also of some of the quieter moments from The Forgotten or The Chumscrubber. Sampled strings appear in the second cue ( "Diana - A Future To Be....") that may remind the listener of Apocalypto from two years prior, although the samples here feel a little more refined and less obviously synthetic. Another remnant of House of Sand and Fog is a rising piano figure, prominently used in the beginning, but also throughout the rest of the score. The very first seconds of "An Ordinary Day" also reveal the third major element of Horner's music, a female solo voice, that adds an almost graceful touch to the score ( "An Ordinary Day"). If one has to point out a reference from Horner's past works, his use of the voice can remotely be compared to parts of The New World; however, especially later in the score, the voice sometimes feels sampled, but it's hard to tell. In any case, it's beautiful and effective.
These first two cues make for a nice, atmospheric listen, but nothing really happens here. Fortunately, "Becoming Close Friends" introduces Horner's theme for piano, and it's a real beauty, cleverly constructed and perfect for the troubled protagonist of the film. The theme leads to more of the sad and slow piano music already heard in the previous tracks, before parts of the theme reappear in slight variations. All in all, a beautiful piece. The bad news is, from there on the sound introduced in the opening cues goes on for pretty much the bulk of the album's running time. I desperately try to find further ways to describe the music, to add a little length to this review, but the fact is, if you hear the first nine minutes of the score, you will know what most of the rest sounds like ( "Diana's Young Conscience Is Finally Formed"). Some of the synthetic tones that Horner employs are certainly interesting (like these little effects in "Two Lives Slowly Converging" with a strangley "maritime", deep sea feel to them if you can follow me), but it takes repeated listens to make out such details and to appreciate them, since the music isn't really trying very hard to keep your attention. Even getting a little tiresome is the aforementioned rising piano figure that is just repeated too often.
In "The Gift Of A Necklace" at least, Horner's theme makes a much welcomed return, as it does in form of a nice variation in "Diana Gets Hit By A Car", but these appearances are painfully rare, putting the album in danger to be one of Horner's dullest in a long time. It is not until the penultimate cue, ( "Two Worlds; The Past And The Future"), that a little unsettling variation creeps into the music, with the piano getting more urgent and evolving into another direction, while the music takes on an almost eerie tone when the voice returns. This leads to the 12-minutes final ( "Young Diana's Future - A Future That Could Have Been...."), without a doubt the highlight of the score (apart from the thematic statements). It starts with harsh electronics that strongly evoke Apocalypto, complete with Horner's trademark metallic crashes, sampled strings and synthetic brass. What follows is a piano piece, roughly five minutes in length and effectively accompanied by string samples, that sees Horner finally injecting some life into his writing as the film's conclusion obviously has arrived. Then the female voice over electronics takes over again, with an almost trance-like quality to it, before the theme eventually makes its final appearance, that, although a little less satisfying in this variation than in its previous statements, ends the album properly.
To what extend Horner had to comply to Perelman's wish for restraint can of course only be guessed. Fact is, the resulting score, for most of its parts, can hardly serve as more than mere accompaniment to the film. (I have to stress again, however, that I have not seen the film yet at this point.) While this in a way was also true for House of Sand and Fog, many listeners may find less to admire here because of the lack of complexity compared to Horner's music for the director's previous film. On the other hand, Horner's score for The Life Before Her Eyes is certainly the more accessible one, with the music at the very least being always highly listenable (maybe even pleasantly soothing for some), and the synthetic elements never reaching irritating or annoying heights as they did in, for example, The Forgotten. This is by no means bad music. Horner is just capable of so much more, especially when he has the opportunity at his hands to reflect human drama and emotion (both of which a story like this should provide) in his music.
With all this in mind, it remains to be seen whether this ongoing collaboration with Perelman will evolve into another fruitful director-composer relationship for Horner in the future, but considering the interesting projects that Perelman has lined up at this point, one can only hope that he will continue to trust in Horner’s services. If that is the case, it will also be interesting to see how long Perelman will stick to this restrained approach when it comes to the score, with future films maybe grander in scale; sooner or later it may become harder to resist Horner’s other, more “direct” side as a composer (which his fans would certainly prefer), and to let Horner finally paint his musical picture with broader strokes. Until then, Horner’s score for The Life Before Her Eyes comes only recommended for Horner fans who want to add this fine, beautiful theme to their collection and can appreciate the rest as pleasant background music.