Arts movie review

Terrence Malick dazzles and perplexes with his newest impressionistic take on romance

Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Michael Fassbender star in Song to Song, a meditation on relationships

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Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara in Song to Song.
Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures - © 2017 Broad Green Pictures

Song to Song
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett
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The moment you see director Terrence Malick’s name flash across the screen, you know you are in for a different kind of movie experience. In many of his films, Malick seems to speak in his own unique visual language that feels experimental and fresh to some but pretentious and baffling to others. In fact, during the screening for Malick’s newest film Song to Song, a handful of people walked out of the theater before the movie was even halfway through. With a runtime of 2 hours and 25 minutes, the film is an investment, but patient viewers leave the theater with the sense that they have just seen something thought-provoking, if not also deeply real and beautiful.  

At its most basic level, Song to Song is about relationships in all its forms: familial, platonic, romantic, etc. It is about the mistakes we make and the uncertainties we face in life. The film opens with a series of seemingly disparate shots, stitched together by wistful narration. What follows is an amalgamation of moments capturing the orbiting lives of the struggling musicians, BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), and the charismatic music producer, Cook (Michael Fassbender). In the heart of the Austin, Texas rock n’ roll music scene, the three forge a tenuous friendship that is subjected to the divisive forces of human faults and turbulent emotions.

Song to Song is less a sequential narrative than it is one that deals with mood, emotion and atmosphere. This is Malick’s fifth collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, so the grandeur and sweeping magnificence of many of the shots is a familiar hallmark of his films. Interlaced between the moody character studies are scenes of breathtaking imagery: a flock of birds sweeping across a cloud-littered blue sky, the reflection of a fiery sunset across the glittering expanse of a still lake, and fields of pale yellow wheat stalks undulating in the gentle breeze. What results is a meandering stream of visual information that juxtaposes the vast dignity of nature with the small and perplexing human struggle.  

Malick is known for his impressionistic style, in which he makes each shot feel like just another brushstroke of paint on his storytelling canvas. It is as if instead of hard outlines and specific shapes, the viewer is being presented with rich colors and textures and the suggestion of shapes and shadows, from which the plot and character motivations are inferred. He engages the viewer, urging them to participate in the experience and to draw their own meaning from the collage of images and small human moments that he has put together. Song to Song continues in this vein, this time presenting an optimistically romantic opinion of human relationships.  

The characters follow this impressionistic framework as well. Paralleling the drifting, dreamlike quality of the film, the characters themselves seem like wanderers in their own lives. Each of them struggles with their own sense of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty which permeates their actions and interactions. Like any good storyteller, Malick spends much of the film showing, not telling. Instead of relying on dialogue or explicitly showing the events that happen on screen, the events and emotions from the film’s world are conveyed implicitly to the viewer through the subtle language of human behavior and expression. Mara, Gosling, and Fassbender take on the physicality of this form of acting with assurance and composure, speaking to each other and to the audience primarily with bowed heads, bumping shoulders, lingering touches and wide-eyed stares.

Song to Song is not without fault. At times, the film almost feels like a mockery of itself, indulging in one too many frantic rock n’ roll concert montages, long takes of vacant stares, and unsteady, up close camera movements. Some scenes have the insincere air of a flashy music video or a dramatically meaningless perfume commercial. Like too much dessert, the lush cinematography and emotional sentimentality begin to feel a bit cloying and overwrought. However, it’s easy to forgive Malick for stretching a great concept only slightly too far.

Despite it’s flaws, Song to Song manages to convey a beautiful, dreamlike representation of very real human experiences. Though the ambiguous imagery and indirect storytelling might feel perplexing at first, once you get used to Malick’s unique visual language, a larger, more meaningful story begins to emerge. Song to Song is not a film for casual viewing. It requires patience, reflection, and an open mind for the unfamiliar. But it ultimately does what any great film ought to do: make you think and make you feel.