5.5 out of 10
Ryan Gosling as BV
Michael Fassbender as Cook
Rooney Mara as Faye
Natalie Portman as Rhonda
Cate Blanchett as Amanda
Patti Smith as Herself
Directed by Terrence Malick
Song to Song Review:
It almost goes without saying that a new Terrence Malick film can be an intensely frustrating experience. Ever since Days of Heaven, he has thrown out the classic narrative process to focus on how we perceive reality and how different that is from how our stories reflect reality, while honing in on a particular set of themes. Song to Song continues his ongoing exploration to how we actually experience life and how different it is from how we think we experience life, and how the steady embrace of modern living and urban life moves us away from nature and the further from nature we get the more corrupted and less perfect our lives get.
None of these are particularly original themes, but Malick’s distinct directorial and narrative approach has set his take on them apart from others who have attempted the same thing. At some point, someone will do a retrospective taking everything from A New World through Song to Song and explore his development of those themes across multiple works. And I look forward to reading that some day. Living through it piece by piece is a very different animal, however – much like the young lovers of Song to Song, we can only focus on a small differentiated element in front of us at the moment but are filled with the existential dread that all of those moments are basically the same. That Malick, like all of us humans, is stuck in a rut he can’t get out of because his perspective is limited to fragments.
These fragments are focused in on a group of intertwined lives searching for love and meaning on the outskirts of the Austin music scene. BV (Gosling) and Faye (Mara) are itinerant musicians looking to make it big and are given the chance to do so by metaphorically selling their souls to Cook (Fassbender), a magnetic music producer with intense addictions and no particular care for other persons, not even his wife (Portman).
It sounds very much like a lot of other films made about itinerant artists, but in Malick’s hands it becomes something very different. It’s a beautiful film, taking great advantage of natural light and emphasizing the fly on the wall look of his last several films using very wide angle lenses on a constantly-moving camera, giving the audience the feeling of standing very close to and staring at the actors while they try to ignore it like a reality show cast. The actors themselves are also constantly in motion, always moving away or towards but mostly away from each other, reaching out for playful touches before moving away again. In Malik’s world, contact between lovers is like the play of children, laughing, teasing, tickling, goofing around, suggesting that love and innocence are intrinsically linked and the loss of one means the loss of the other. The actors give it their all, particularly Fassbender, who is an excellent fit for Malick’s physical style, but ultimately they’re being used more as props than transmitters for story and theme. The image is all in Malick’s universe and within Song to Song there are some images and moments of startling power, particularly in the salad days when BV first begins working with Cook and has not yet become aware of how dark his world is. But, and this should not come as a surprise, it does not easily come together into a whole.
As interesting as Malick’s particular narrative technique is, it has one fatal flaw. Human beings can make sense of the fragments their memory hands to them when the ruminate because they have the context for the images. The fragments bring up other associations and sense memories, putting the individual back in the moment; if they don’t have the whole in mind they have the feeling of the whole. A film or story can’t do that (unless its made up of clips from other well known stories), because we don’t have the context for the fragments. What’s left is at best difficult to piece together and at worse gibberish.
Song to Song is not gibberish, not even at its most self-important moments. The thematic elements are repeated so regularly and clearly that even if the specific timing of events is unclear (Did Cook meet his wife before or after Faye? What decisions did BV and Faye really come to when they met again?), what Malick is getting at isn’t. But what he’s getting into isn’t new, not even for him, and if repetition is making his point clear it’s not making it deeper or more interesting to sit through. Constant honing, rather than sharpening to a point, has dulled the knife. But check back again in 10 years with a more full context and maybe it will all make sense.