The Firm (1993) is a nail-biting thriller about greed, corruption, lust, and how all three can destroy lives and relationships. Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), an up and coming young lawyer, is offered a lucrative position at a small, but prestigious law firm in Memphis, Tennessee. Everything seems to be going great. But it doesn’t take long for cracks to appear in the idyllic lifestyle that Mitch and his wife, Abby, have made for themselves (with the help of the Firm). Soon Mitch must decide between giving into his employers’ corruption to live a comfortable, safe life… or working to bring about the Firm’s end—and possibly his own.
I could write several articles discussing this movie’s themes, characters, plot, etc. But what fascinates me most about The Firm is how the film’s composer, David Grusin, uses music to tell a compelling story. This is what all movie composers try to do, but I feel like Grusin really succeeds with his soundtrack.
The first example comes in the opening theme over the first scene. It’s an upbeat piano piece with a distinctive jazz flavor (most of the score is played entirely on a piano—there aren’t many other instruments used). I remember watching The Firm for the first time, knowing it was a thriller, and being surprised by how incongruous the opening theme seemed. Almost too cheerful, you know? It wasn’t until I re-watched it and listened to the soundtrack a bunch of times that I noticed (and appreciated) the tense, ominous beat in the track’s background. It really sets the mood. The score seems innocent and lighthearted and fun on the surface, but it’s dangerous, dark, and strained underneath—just like the Firm itself.
Then there’s the track ‘Mud Island Chase.’ As the name might suggest, this piece of scoring is the background to a pivotal, nerve-wracking chase scene near the film’s conclusion. What I love about it is David Grusin’s use of a metronome in the background of the (again) jazzy piano music. Even without the metronome, the music would still set a tense scene. But the constant ticking gives a real sense of urgency and suspense; it’s this extra layer which convinces you the characters are in a tight situation with little hope of escape. (No spoilers though!)
Lastly, there are two different (yet similar) tracks that contrast each other to provide a more complete musical image. The first is ‘Mitch & Abby,’ a beautiful bit of music that plays as the couple drives to Memphis and settles into their new home/life, courtesy of the Firm. It is a wonderful tribute to Mitch and Abby’s warm, loving relationship—it’s one of my favorite moments on the soundtrack. But when compared with the final piece of music in the film, ‘How Could You Lose Me?’ the track takes on an even deeper, better quality.
Without giving away too much, Mitch and Abby go through a lot (because of Mitch’s professional life with the Firm and personal mistakes). ‘How Could You Lose Me?’ reprises the ‘Mitch & Abby’ theme, but in a quieter, more mature, and more melancholy manner. It’s the perfect way for David Grusin to show just how much Mitch and Abby have changed—as has their relationship. The reprisal of a familiar theme signals to the audience that life will go on, despite all the hardships endured by both characters. It’s a moment similar in concept to the final scoring in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993)—the return of a musical motif to illustrate how, even though things have changed, the best parts of the characters (and their world) are still the same.
I’m a huge fan of movie soundtracks. But I’ve never found one that opened itself up for interpretation quite as well as the soundtrack for The Firm. With just a few instruments and some insanely great composing skills, David Grusin created the perfect counterpoint to the thrilling and sometimes chilling story. See the film for yourself and you’ll understand what I mean!