For film-nerds, Terrence Malick is movie royalty. To everyone else, he’s more like the emperor with no clothes. Malick’s atypical style remains an acquired taste that will test the patience of far more people than it impresses, and his latest picture, Song to Song, epitomizes the director’s polarizing qualities. His last several films did away with standard narrative structures and Song to Song continues that trend.
In 99% of my film reviews, I provide a synopsis, but I don’t think a traditional synopsis applies in this case. Let’s just say that Song to Song is a love story taking place in and around the Austin music scene. The film revolves around Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), a couple of up-and-coming artists who cross paths with Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music mogul who can make or break their careers. Natalie Portman, Holly Hunter, Cate Blanchett, and Val Kilmer all show-up, but describing who they are and what they mean to the story is like trying to punch smoke.
Fassbender and Portman Light Up The Screen
Malick, just like any mainstream filmmaker, is a storyteller. What distinguishes him is how he bends cinematic conventions to fit his will. Directors use standard concepts like character arcs, three-act structures, and simple exposition as tools to convey stories for our minds to process. We figure out what’s going on and form an opinion; they work their way into our rational brains. Malick uses images, sounds, editing, and camera movements to make us feel before we think. He wants us to draw conclusions from our feelings – he chooses to work from the inside, out. Think of his style as cinematic poetry; you don’t understand a Malick film as much as you feel it.
To enjoy Song to Song, you must clear your mental cache and allow yourself to simply experience the movie. If you go in with preconceived notions of how a movie functions, you will only frustrate yourself. The film is short on plot, but Malick masterfully captures fleeting moments of beauty.
Most films depict love in big broad gestures, such as a first kiss or manic infatuation. In real life, however, it’s quiet, intimate moments that solidify love’s bonds; quickly pulling your lover close and stealing a kiss, or giggling and acting like cornballs when nobody is around. Malick peppers his film with these small bits of affection, and they’re the type of moments that most editors leave on the chopping room floor. These instances don’t move the plot forward or tell us anything that we don’t already know, but as I sat watching these “superfluous” moments, they rekindled my own fond memories and stirred up feelings I had locked away.
Think of Song to Song as a cinematic ink blot test. The movie is so thematically diffuse and narratively impenetrable that it can be anything and everything to everyone. Is it about chasing your dreams at any cost? Sure. Is it about struggling with compromising your values? I guess so. Is it about how we go through life like wrecking balls, destroying those in our paths to get what we want? Why not? Malick uses his characters as avatars that explore life’s most profound questions, and more often than not, his characters – and Song to Song’s themes – are inscrutable. To get something out of this film, you have to sit on the edge of your seat, lean in, and focus really hard.
Rather than grading a film, I prefer to ask myself one simple question: if I could go back in time to right before watching the movie, would I recommend it to myself? In this case, I would recommend Song to Song to myself without hesitation. I can’t say that I loved any one aspect of the movie, and at times sitting through the film was a slough. Yet, there are beautiful moments in Song to Song that I’ll store away in my film-nerd brain and return to for months to come.
Casual moviegoers should avoid this movie – even Malick’s big-time fans are divided over his experimental phase. Song to Song will bore mainstream audiences senseless and leave them angry that they wasted their hard-earned cash. But hey, that’s fine. Not every film is meant for a huge audience. I want to live in a world where directors like Malick draw A-list talent to their perplexing niche films. Malick fans, the art-house crowd, and those with a devotion to cinema as an art form will find much more to enjoy.