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Soundtrack review: The alienist (Rupert Gregson-Williams – 2018)


Soundtrack review: The alienist (Rupert Gregson-Williams – 2018)



“The Alienist” is an American television period drama mystery series based on the novel of same name by Caleb Carr. The psychological thriller drama is set in 1896, when a series of gruesome murders of boy prostitutes has gripped New York City. Newly appointed police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt calls upon Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist – aka alienist – and newspaper illustrator John Moore to conduct the investigation in secret. Joining them in the probe is Sara Howard, a headstrong secretary at police headquarters. It stars Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning and the score was written by Rupert Gregson-Williams. It’s definitely on my to watch list.

The score opens with “Streets of New York” and the composer wants to set the story in time with a stringy sound that I often find in shows or movies about vikings or times when emotions were taking a back seat to action. The quirky strings also remind me a bit of Hans Zimmer’s “Sherlock Holmes” scores and it fits with what is going on in “The alienist”. I am ok with quirky and I am happy to discover a new layer to Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music. He is going the minimalistic route for this score and the combination of strange instruments and minimalistic vibes works. It’s clear to me that the main character of the story is one full of quirks and the music needs to stay faithful to his persona and process so I understand a cue like “On the case” where a plucked string motif blends with a broader, orchestral one.

The problem with a score that is so in tune with the story and the main character is that it has moments when it doesn’t make much sense outside the context of the show; the strange, disrupted and experimental motifs that the composer exposes in, let’s say, “Brooklyn Bridge” are uncomfortable as a standalone listening experience. This cue gets too quiet for me and is too fragmented to enjoy but I know it’s the type of piece that does a lot more when coupled with a scene. This happens a lot of times as I listen to “The alienist”.

I love minimalistic music and I am usually able to enjoy different, experimental music as well but something is missing in this score; there are times when I am having fun because of those addictive string motifs but nothing more. The pace of some of the cues also works and gets me excited but there are no themes or emotional moments to really make me feel a connection with the score. The music is fine as a texture to use for training, running or maybe getting my mind jumpstarted but it never goes deeper. I am happy to discover a cue like “Eyes and tongue” because it’s one of the few warm moments from “The alienist”.

I end up with contradicting feelings about this score and a need to listen to it again to make more sense of it; I liked the minimalistic sound and how the mood went ambient sometimes and there were those “Sherlock Holmes” like quirky string motifs that are always fun but I had a hard time finding entire cues to mark as highlights. “The alienist” is a dark textural score that works better with the support of the TV show that out of context.

Cue rating: 75 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 7 / 64

Album excellence: 11%

Closing In
Another Boy

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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