A best-selling novel turned arthouse film, White Oleander attracted an impressive cast of female stars but ultimately failed to make much of an impression at the box office or award shows. After his resounding success with Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Thomas Newman was for a time the composer of choice for arthouse Oscar-bait (which led to his record-setting streak of failed Oscar nominations) and it was no surprise to see his name on the marquee. Newman put together an unusual ensemble for the project, combining a few specialty instrument soloists with only a handful of studio players, in an extreme version of the quirky ensemble and quirkier instruments that he had assembled for Beauty and its ilk.
The result is, somewhat predictably, a continuation of the style found in scores like American Beauty and In the Bedroom with far less rhythm, motion, and interest in the music. White Oleander never rises above a whisper, and without a theme or Newman’s trademark quirky rhythms, there’s nothing to sustain the music. Instead, it becomes a dull, monotonous drone, firmly backgrounded both on screen and on album. More than anything, the album resembles a New Age relaxation tape, designed to wick away stress and induce slumber. Nothing of the troubled or contentious nature of the film is reflected in the underscore, which is essentially reduced to sonic wallpaper. There is some admittedly attractive piano work at the beginning and end of the disc, but even this seems like it’s building toward a climax that never arrives.
In many ways, White Oleander represents the nadir of Newman’s post-American Beauty experiments with strange instruments and minimalism. Beauty was one of the most-aped sounds of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as a result of its success (and perhaps of Newman’s own changing tastes) he hewed strongly toward that style for many of his scores in the following years at the expense of the orchestral sound of scores like The Shawshank Redemption which had won him many of his most passionate fans. The Oleander score was the culmination of a three-year period of similar music and diminishing returns for the composer, who shortly thereafter began blending his quirky minimalism with a more traditional orchestral palette. It was this latter approach that led to later scores with a much better balance to their Newmanisms, acclaimed works as Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even the Mendes-helmed Bond score Skyfall.
As the most extreme example of a style that doesn’t resonate strongly with many fans outside of the context of its film, White Oleander is therefore recommended only for extreme fans of Newman’s minimalism, or people who enjoyed the score as cut to picture. To be fair, there are Newman fans who thoroughly embrace the composer’s scores of this ilk, and there are certainly those who can appreciate the composer at his most minimalistic, even when he is producing themeless, meandering music that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Age relaxation disc.