Review: Song to Song (2017)

The cinematic community’s appreciation of Terrence Malick has taken something of a nosedive in recent years. While The Tree of Life was seen as a watershed moment for the director and has directly influenced the way memory is depicted onscreen, critics have treated the films that followed it (and which in many ways expanded on its elliptical filmmaking) less charitably. While I staunchly defend To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Voyage of Life, and now Song to Song as singular works of cinema and expressive showcases of the frailty of human memory and the ways that sin generates personal and relational weaknesses, I do recognize that Song to Song is likely the last time this method of filmmaking will work to any meaningful degree. Song to Song is the final gasp of Malick’s experimental sensualism that has simultaneously bewildered and invigorated. This mode of filmmaking has run its course

Song to Song is not a narrative film, so there’s little point in discussing its semblance of a story, but suffice to say, it involves a woman in Austin named Faye (Rooney Mara) and her troubled, passionate relationship with two men: one a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling) and the other a producer named Cook (Michael Fassbender). As in Malick’s other films, we see fragments of Faye’s life and the lives of those around her, often accompanied with voiceover from her and other characters that seems pitched at God or at least a consciousness beyond her own. Almost all the scenes are shot on extremely wide lenses that distort faces and round the edges of rooms and are handheld or steadicam operated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who is also the dynamo shooting for Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Iñárritu).

Much of Song to Song is stunningly beautiful. For instance, no combination of director and cinematographer is better at capturing the fading light of dawn or twilight. In fact, I first became aware of the concept of “the magic hour” because of Malick’s films. But the distorted images involving wide lenses and endless shots of navels did begin to try my patience in moments of Song to Song. The power of this sort of imagery is its airiness—that it conveys the sense the camera might wisp away at any moment, as if we’re capturing not a performed scene but a stolen memory. However, it has its drawbacks in addition to its strengths.

In terms of strengths, it captures outbursts of humanity in ways other coverage does not. People like to bemoan the constant dancing and improvised goofing on camera in recent Malick films, of which Song to Song has the greatest abundance, but these moments capture the often-bizarre ways that human emotion manifests itself, especially in romantic relationships: those moments when a silly face, an unexpected touch, or a bizarre question brings two people closer together. Malick is capable of capturing genuine connection and human oddity in a way most filmmakers cannot. For example, there’s a scene of Gosling and Fassbender goofing around with Mara on some unknown Latin American beach—Fassbender tromping around on the sand in a squat position, making monkey noises—that is honest in a way even the loosest hangout picture is not. What other filmmaker would dare to have movie stars act like fools and weirdos the way normal people do when they’re truly having fun?

However, in other moments, this consistent style of wide lenses and fragmented editing gets in the way of larger emotions. Scenes run longer in Song to Song than they do in To the Wonder or Knight of Cups, but those tastes of narrative only make us hunger for more conventional plotting. Knight of Cups, in particular, didn’t even try to tell a narrative, instead leaning hard on its elliptical, lyrical nature, giving us a tone poem about a man’s journey away from paradise. This ended up alienating many viewers, but it transported me in a way Song to Song never managed.

The moments in Song to Song that are most affecting are the extending scenes of naked connection that I mentioned earlier (not literally naked, although there are those kinds of scenes too). As well, the few shots late in the film were breathtaking. A particular frame of Michael Fassbender’s face—I believe it’s the last close-up we get of him in the film—is startling for the fact that it’s conventionally framed. Instead of using a wide lens that shifts and contorts the face, Malick holds on a typical close-up, statically allowing us to gaze deep into Fassbender’s piercing blue eyes. It’s as if we’re truly seeing the character for the first time, at a moment when he might finally be recognizing his own weaknesses.

Moments like this made me curious for a new film working in a more grounded mode—perhaps Radegund will be that film. I don’t want Malick to defang his singular methods or rethink his visual style, but I do hope for another film more like Days of Heaven or The New World instead of another experimental mosaic like Song to Song. He’s too talented at epic symphonics to only play in a minor key. He could scale back his experiments in narration and restrict himself to a clearer storyline.

Or at least, I’d appreciate a clearer entry point to this work as a whole, instead of singular moments that impress. Knight of Cups began with a quote and a recitation of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is key to deciphering that film and unlocking its rich meaning. However much I appreciated Song to Song, I wish that it too contained a cipher to decode its secrets. Instead, I remain an admirer kept at a distance further than I’d like from a director whose visions I adore.

6 out of 10

Song to Song (2017, USA)Written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Bérénice Marlohe, Patti Smith, Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer, with Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett.