Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with Song to Song after his last polarizing film, Knight of Cups. This film caused fatigue among some viewers and left a desire for Terrence’s work to become more accessible. It’s fitting that Song to Song opened up SXSW’s film festival, being a film set mostly in Austin as well as Malick being a local to the area. While I’m of one of the viewers who was not too warm on Knight of Cups, I was hoping for the best with Song to Song. With that said, I did come to love a lot of pieces of Terrence’s latest entry, but I still hold issues with it.
First and foremost I think the the analogy carried between Faye (Rooney Mara), Cook (Michael Fassbender), and BV (Ryan Gosling) is a great one. These three are the crux of the film and I wish that Terrence would’ve kept the film focused on their dynamic entirely. Faye opens the film and speaks on how she’s looking for experiences in life, and this matches the film’s many returns to the ACL music festival. Faye finds these exhilarating experiences with Michael Fassbender’s Cook. Cook is a scummy, rich, businessman with deep hands in the music industry. Their relationship for the most part is one driven by lust. The sexual highs (and literal highs) are portrayals of those brief albeit intense episodes many of us feel, that regardless leave us with emptiness moments after they fade. These moments can vary from festivals, sex, drugs, parties, etc. Although they’re brief, many of us become addicted to such emotions and find ourselves in a constant return to the experience, even if they lead to self-destruction. At the same time that Faye has developed her addiction to this relationship she falls in love with Ryan Gosling’s BV. This relationship is built entirely on their love for each other. Interactions between the set of couples is often limited to action instead of dialogue. It’s worth noting that that interactions between Faye and Cook together are mostly sexual acts, whereas Faye and BV are having fantasy moments of romance together. When we finally do see a sexual act between Faye and BV, it’s an important and turning moment for their relationship. As much as the film analyzes the dichotomy of love and lust, there’s also exploration as to how the two complement each other. Faye, BV, and Cook spend many scenes together and form a group of sorts. Cook supplies the thrills and funs for the “team” while BV supplies intimacy to Faye. She’s surrounded by the film’s dichotomy and in a perfect world she could keep it that way, but BV has no idea about her relationship with Cook and this brings obstacles. I think it’s pretty clear how developed this love triangle is and it honestly kept me very invested in the film. My issues with the narrative is when it sets off from this course. We are introduced into few other romances that I found to be quite useless. I still have no idea what was the significance of BV’s relationship with Cate Blanchett’s character. I actually felt this way about most of the relationships that are off track from the main one. I can see that Terrence may have been demonstrating how love sways in and out of life with different people in varying forms, but in the end most of them felt like filler. They actually cause the film to feel much longer than its 129 minute runtime and the back half of the film drags. As I said, I can see what Terrence was going for but he spends a much longer time on these other relationships than he needed to; to the point where it brought harm to the enjoyment of the film. In fact, earlier today Terrence joined a recorded discussion with Richard Linklater and Michael Fassbender and admitted that Song to Song could’ve been a mini-series. Perhaps this would have allowed room for development for the many, other romances. The only other romance I began to care for was between Cook and Natalie Portman’s Rhonda. Behind the original trio, this is the only one that seems to have some development and it brings an even more destructive view of love than what was already shown.
I hold no issues with Terrence’s visual style and presentation. In fact, I was blown away by the beauty of the film. Frequent collaborator and friend of Terrence, Emmanuel Lubezki, returns to handle the cinematography. Lubezki is my personal favorite cinematographer, and he surely delivers with Song to Song. The camera most often follows actors in a very close and personal way in true Malick fashion. Scenes are dreamlike and hazy when needed to be, and romantic and intense when Terrence wants to capture the beauty of mutual love. I think that the style of the film will surely put off some viewers, especially those new to Malick’s work, but if you’re a fan or have a pre-set expectation you might find yourself captured as well. The editing often works in a montage-like format shifting through gorgeous visuals and the film’s attempts to present emotion. I think Terrence Malick is one who religiously lives by storytelling rule “show, don’t tell.” Is there a certain point that goes beyond the necessities of purely visual and lack of any exposition? Sure, but the film seems to be self-aware in this issue and attempts to thrive at it. The actors seem very dedicated to delivering, and I think they had a lot of fun with this film. You could tell that there was plenty of discussion among them to create the identities of their characters. However, said realizations are not always presented in the film. The main trio bring good performances in their own right, but the editing can make it hard to appreciate certain scenes. Ryan, Rooney, and Mara each have standout scenes where they demonstrate strong emotion, but the moment cuts to another within seconds. This is due to focus being on the visual flair, and not the performers themselves (for said moments). Natalie Portman holds a minor part in the film but she may have the best performance. I found it to be the most personal performance, as well as the most emotional. Although I must admit that the arc for the character can come off as misguided and the lack of coherent build can make the arc seem abrupt.
I don’t think the film is as inaccessible as Knight of Cups, and for the most one can tell that Malick is trying to create a rounded perception of love and its effect on life in all ways possible. He succeeds in some directions of love but fails in others due to lack of presented development (the ideas are clearly in his head, but not always shown to us). This film started out as a great one for me that was damaged by what seems like self-indulgence. I believe Malick to be the type of artist who creates for himself and only himself, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it does come with consequences. Especially for art that is meant to be viewed by audiences.
Song to Song will release in theaters March 17, 2017.