Challengers (Original Score)

At a recent premiere of Challengers, journalists stopped Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the red carpet to ask them about the score, their latest in a stellar run that began in 2010 with The Social Network, and which has bagged them two Academy Awards so far. “We’re used to the world of being in a band where we can control everything and we’re the bosses,” Reznor said. “Working in film, it’s interesting and it’s fun because we’re not the boss, we’re working in collaboration and in partnership with the director.”

Reznor said this coyly, as if the theme of control—having it, wanting it, giving it up—hasn’t been central to his art for decades. Before Ross came on board, Nine Inch Nails was Reznor’s solo act dressed up as a band. He was notoriously detail-oriented, insisting on total creative oversight of things the label would usually handle, like artwork and music videos. Dominance and servitude have been a recurring theme in Nine Inch Nails’ lyrics since “Head Like a Hole,” the first track of their first album.

That one was written when Reznor was broke, in his early twenties, and working as a janitor in a recording studio so he could make his own demos after hours. Some 30 years later, things are different. Reznor is a cult hero, an industry darling, and just a Tony away from an EGOT. Somehow, the man whose most famous lyric is “I wanna fuck you like an animal” ended up scoring a film for Disney—and winning an Oscar for it. If the first act of Reznor’s career was defined by him being the boss, the second has shown him either sharing creative agency or letting others take the lead.

Appropriately, Ross and Reznor’s latest score is for a film largely about control and being controlled. Challengers is directed by Luca Guadagnino, the master of slow-boil eroticism who gave us Call Me By Your Name and Bones and All (also scored by Ross and Reznor). Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a tennis star turned coach who spends the movie’s decade-plus storyline as a puppet master to her two suitors, besties turned rivals Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). After luring them into a three-way kiss in the hotel room scene you see in the trailer, she leans back and watches with a smirk as they make out with each other, then tells them she’ll give her number to whoever wins the next day’s tournament. She dates Zweig, but it fizzles when he balks at the idea of letting her guide his career. Donaldson is a more willing subject. She becomes his coach after an injury ends her own tennis career, and they end up married with a kid and appearing together in Aston Martin ads, a tennis power couple with her at the helm. The story’s climax and central storyline revolves around a match between Zweig and Donaldson that she’s slyly choreographed, and in which she’s dangled herself as the prize—stakes that suit her only by guaranteeing a bit of really, really good tennis.

Challengers is invariably described as hot, sexy, steamy, etc., but there is almost no actual sex in it. The erotic charge comes mostly from Zendaya’s character and the power she has over these two men, on and off the tennis court. The movie’s tagline could have come straight from “Head Like a Hole”: “Bow down before the one you serve.”

Like Donaldson, Reznor and Ross thrive by following instructions, giving us something Reznor acknowledges he probably wouldn’t have thought to do. “Luca said, ‘What if all the music was driving, thumping techno, like a heartbeat that makes the movie fun?’” he recalled. “I don’t know that we would have landed on that on our own.” True to Guadagnino’s brief, Challengers (Original Score) offers a smorgasbord of thumping club sounds, from electroclash (“Yeah x10”) to synth-pop to fast and functional techno. Each one feels like a dutiful genre exercise, but with a sonic signature that that is unmistakably Reznor and Ross’, especially in the way instruments like piano and guitar gel so elegantly with synths and drum machines.

The music works brilliantly in the film, driving the action as much as it follows it, less a backdrop than a bold counterpoint to what’s on screen. Take, for instance, the moment when kick drums start pounding during a dorm-room argument. Or, more generally, the idea of rave music as the soundtrack to a tennis dramedy, a pairing that works so well you probably wouldn’t notice how counterintuitive it actually is. Much like their music for The Social Network, Ross and Reznor’s score opens dimensions to the film that might not have been visible otherwise. Almost every review of Challengers has praised the score specifically—even, in the case of the BBC, when they’re panning the film itself.

Ross and Reznor’s past soundtracks, however inspired, have never quite worked as albums outside the context of their respective films. The music on Challengers stands up on its own better than any music from their other scores, but the record as a whole still has a lumpiness that’s symptomatic of the format, with many tracks clocking in at less than three minutes and some appearing and reappearing in multiple versions. Evidently wise to this concern, Ross and Reznor hired the German DJ and producer Boys Noize to create a supplementary mixed (and remixed) version of the OST—no mean feat given the dramatic range in tempos, but one he handles with flair, creating a tight half hour of party rockers, dusted with samples of rackets thwacking and sneakers squeaking on clay. Boys Noize’s mix weaves it all together into a smooth, dynamic arc, and delivers a far more interesting version of “Compress / Repress,” lobbing in some gabber flourishes that shouldn’t work but absolutely do.

“Compress / Repress,” co-written with Guadagnino and sung by Reznor, is one instance where the shared artistic control gets confusing. Historically, Reznor has lent his voice to music that prized sincerity and authentic personal expression above all else. This song feels different: The lyrics flatly complement the themes of the film, and the production is a kind of straightforward synth-pop you’d never get from Nine Inch Nails. For this lifelong NIN fan, to learn the lyrics weren’t all Reznor’s was clarifying and, somehow, relieving; to see him doing another artist’s bidding is strangely humanizing. As a movie theme, it’s fine. As a Nine Inch Nails track, it would be a bit vanilla. Either way, at a screening this week in Berlin, it had a few audience members chair-dancing their way through the final credits.