by Seamus MulhernTerrence Malick does not film scenes. He films moments.
Ever since his 2011 masterpiece, The Tree of Life, Malick has strayed away from the historical fiction that made him famous (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) and moved into the category of… something else. His work post-Tree is categorized by some as “experimental modernism.” Malick is taking mundane, everyday actions and using experimental filmmaking techniques to convey them differently.
Song to Song encapsulates this departure. Like his most recent films, it captures an existential crisis through a unique lens. Unfortunately, this notion may send a chill down the spines of some movie fans, as the last few Malick films have been less than adequate. In particular, Knight of Cups is a somewhat terrible portrait of a depressed screenwriter that plays like a parody of Malick’s work (lack of linear storytelling, poetic narration that doesn’t actually mean anything, etc.). Luckily (and unlike Knight), Song has one factor that saves it from oblivion — a beating heart.
It also has a story. A threadbare one, but a story nonetheless. Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling play musicians in the Austin music scene who get a chance to make it big with a rich, hedonistic music producer played by Michael Fassbender. That’s about it. While the story may be simple on paper and screen, it provides the film with the focus that was lacking in Malick’s previous few endeavors. It seems to be his first film since Tree that feels alive.
Song to Song’s real strengths lie in the visuals. While not always immediately appealing, Malick visually captures the emotion of every scene beautifully. Because of his purposefully loose and expressionistic filming method, he’s able to capture moments and feelings in a completely unique way. You can feel the chaos of a music festival. You can sense the intimacy of a quaint Texas household. You can taste the cheap liquor at a seedy Mexican bar. It’s in these moments that Song to Song almost feels transcendent of the medium.
The camera may always be moving, but that’s not always a good thing. While its loose nature allows Song to Song to capture moments of sincerity, it also allows for moments that feel counterfeit. Malick seems to have a fascination with movement that is capable of being his greatest strength, but instead tends to be his greatest downfall. Oftentimes, Malick has his actors perform nonsensical actions; jumping on chairs, sterile sexual encounters, bizarre blocking, etc. There are about five scenes in this movie where two characters gently kiss as some nonsensical narration about “love being awoken” drones on before it transitions to somber folk music. It’s at times like these where you wonder if Terrence Malick has ever had a conversation with another human being.
It’s fortunate that Malick has such a great cast. While most of these moments would usually leave the audience cringing in their seats, each of the performers use their strengths to save their respective scenes. In particular, Gosling’s sense of gentle charisma brings enough charm so that each of his scenes feel natural and occasionally joyful. Similarly, Mara’s soft-spoken nature lends itself well to Malick’s moments of subtle romance.
Song to Song is a draining film. It requires a great deal of patience that often feel unearned as the film plays on. However, at times, it also feels fulfilling. It’s not for everyone and its lows are conspicuous, but its highs are so, so high. It’s an occasionally beautiful, but constantly intimate piece. I would never sit through Song to Song again, but I’m glad I got to experience it.
3 out of 5 stars