It can be mean, alienating and condescending to tell something they don’t “get” a movie. Terrence Malick, a filmmaker who has gone from reclusive and rarely making films to prolific, yet still reclusive as a person, seems to be making a conscious effort to challenge the notion of understanding cinema. His recent output has maintained a level of focus in terms of key characters, but still plays as challenging works of art that feel practically like what dreams could look like on a more grounded level. Song To Song falls right in line with Knight of Cups and To The Wonder, let alone a part of the fallout that came from his magnum opus, The Tree of Life. The results are once again oblique and bound to divide audiences, but that hasn’t stopped Malick from standing as one of the most original voices currently working.
Shot back in the early 2010s and edited down from a rumored 8 hour cut, there is once again hardly a reason to even try and describe a traditional plot. What the film involves is a set of characters, some of whom are occasionally coupled up, and how they attempt to determine where their lives should go. Each of these characters are either directly or tangentially involved in the world of rock ‘n’ roll (specifically the Austin, Texas music scene). Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman serve as the leads, with plenty of support coming from the likes of Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, a chainsaw-wielding Val Kilmer and many different musicians. The film is sprawling in terms of the locations and various encounters, but it never stops feeling like an intimate look at how these lost souls attempt to just exist.
Song to Song features people getting into arguments, playing around, taking strolls, swimming and plenty of other random activities that could easily play in a pop music-filled montage and yet it has its own hypnotic spell around it. At least for the first hour or so, as Malick’s handling of visual language is intriguing enough to not have one all that concerned with where this is all going. A level of patience is certainly part of the deal to make with Malick and this film no doubt balances its clear artfulness with just how ponderous it can be, before allowing something significant to occur. Of course, there is no real certainty to what is actually being stated here.
Not a stranger to ambiguity and undefined implication though, Malick gets plenty of mileage out of his ability to observe. Shot mostly with wide-angled lenses that rarely find the actors too far away from the camera, DP Emmanuel Lubezki must get along great with Malick, given how easily his work seems to fit with what the director is going for. With scant dialogue and voice-over that feels more like reams of poetry being spoken simply to provide the barest of context, Song to Song is another Malick film that could likely be transformed into a silent feature that lets the music and imagery do a lot of the heavy-lifting.
That would take some of the effort away from the cast though, who all seem game to go on this wild journey with Malick. This must be something of a dream job for actors, who are merely given notes and concepts instead of scripted dialogue. Everyone shines here, as they seem to be flowing well with the rhythm of the film. It’s not so much about standout performances, but given the way Song to Song functions, the most perspective seems to fall behind Mara. She floats between Gosling and Fassbender, in addition to being on her own for various segments of the film, providing a neat overall portrait. Gosling also gets credit for being the only actor allowed a chance to purposefully make the audience smile at his deadpan reactions. In a film that serves as an abstract drama, moments where things can be pulled back a bit is certainly welcome.
With only so much time having passed from seeing the film to writing this review, it is hard to determine the sort of lasting effect a film like this will have. Song to Song may not have struck me like The Tree of Life in terms of immediate profundity, but I certainly wouldn’t say I felt like rejecting this experience. This is a film that clearer wants to function on its own accord and even gains merit by moving past the fathers and sons thematic that has played a role in Malick’s previous work. I wouldn’t say I like this film more simply for being different, but seeing an artist in complete control is undoubtedly admirable.
As far as what one should expect, Song to Song is another look at how a confident filmmaker chooses to portray his take on cinema, as mixed as some may be on it. Eschewing traditional narrative flow in favor of presenting characters in a dream-like state allows for naturalistic performances and some incredible imagery. Even if we are simply seeing fancy houses and mosh pits, compared to shots of vast, open nature (though some of that is present here), there’s a skillful hand sculpting a cinematic experience unlike many other voices out there. It may not work for all and purpose may seem borderline incoherent for some, but I grasped onto enough to be engaged by this latest Malick event.