When you think of a new age Terrence Malick film, you think of succinct, introspective narrations whispered to you. You think of the stunning wide-angle shots lit gorgeously by sunlight. You think of how beautiful even the shaky handheld shots look in his films. You think of endless collage of scenes that act as a blend of memories and dreams. You think of how little dialogue there is between the characters and how unnecessary even that dialogue might be. In fact, there may not be any need for words at all. Terrence Malick has always been a great visual storyteller. However, he has transcended to another level since the Tree of Life. With the help of Emmanuel Lubezki, he has reached the point of only speaking through visuals. He has become a storyshower.
Song to Song is no different than his last three films in terms of the vintage Malick style we have come to know. However, that style of Malick has become a bit of a parody of itself at times in his past two films. In this film that is less of a problem, but Song to Song is still no easier to watch. When I say that, I mean narratively because visually I can just about watch anything Malick makes. His style of flowing through scenes – or more so fleeting moments – can be frustrating to view because it can feel so cold. The emotions are not felt as they should because they are presented to us as memories or emotions felt in the past. As Rooney Mara’s character (Malick spends such little time showing these characters address each other that I failed to catch the name) narrates through these moments, it is presented to us with the feel that her character has come to terms with the occurrences rather than us feeling what her character actually felt.
Perhaps this is why Malick’s films haven’t worked as well after the Tree of Life despite being well conceptualized in theory. This visual storytelling that Malick uses worked marvelously for the Tree of Life because it was about a man looking back at his childhood. It was a film about memories and nostalgia. In addition, it had the ambitious idea of showcasing the beauty of that boyhood and life while showing how it came about in the course of time and space. It wasn’t just that there was no better way to make such a film – there was no other way. It is a storytelling style that matched the film’s ambitious themes perfectly.
When it comes to Song to Song, this is a film that is smaller. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Song to Song is a love story set in the music scene. Faye (played by Rooney Mara – I decided to look up the names of characters) is a struggling songwriter. She gets to know Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) who is a big, established name in music already and gets into a relationship with him. As she indicates in her narrations, she wants to be excited by life and she lets the hedonistic lifestyle of the music world swallow her up but she fails to do anything with her career. She soon meets BV (played by Ryan Gosling), who is Cook’s newly signed artist, and she falls in love. It is essentially a love triangle with the trappings of the music world in the background.
To his credit, Malick does treat this very intimately in his style. The way the film is shot and the chemistry between the actors is there. Visually, it is very intimate. However, intimacy in film is very dependent on dialogue also. Often times, the problems I see in films dealing with intimacy are usually in regards to visual depictions, but here it is the opposite. This is a problem with Malick’s style. The floating memory style presentation would only work if we share a familiarity with the people or bonds in those “memories”. In the Tree of Life, he spends more time on the childhood portion and lets these characters interact and come to life. In Song to Song, there are a couple of portions where he lets the scene play out and breathe and they play out beautifully. If only he did a bit more of that and created some more interactions, we would have a much more impactful film.
Thankfully, because of those occasional moments that manage to play out, this film is a lot more enjoyable than something like Knight of Cups. The friendship between BV and Cook is mostly underplayed, but there is a moment in Mexico that Malick spends time on and it works to portray their connection with just that moment alone. There is another fantastic scene where Cate Blanchett, who by the way is criminally underutilized in this film (not as much as Christian Bale though), is at lunch with BV’s mother (played by Linda Emond) and BV. It is clear at that point that these two are not really compatible with each other and BV’s mother, after a few minutes of awkwardness, just tells that like it is. Malick captures this scene really well and just teases us with what he could do if he liberated himself from his style of making.
My favorite moments of the film are, however, the ones with Rhonda (Natalie Portman), who Cook impulsively marries as he envies the relationship Faye and BV have. She falls for this seemingly dream man who isn’t really in love with her and she ends up being thrown unknowingly into his indulgent lifestyle, which she comes to hate. Rhonda is a tragic figure in this film and the emotion that comes across in that character’s story is powerful. There is not much time spent with her character, but it is still more haunting than some other areas of the film that may have received more focus. Perhaps, the only parts close to as memorable are between Mara and Gosling. This is mostly because Mara seems like she is born to play a Terrence Malick film female lead. There is a certain glow in her eyes that if you add that to Lubezki’s lighting, she looks ethereal. So she does most of the heavy lifting just by looking the part.
On the other hand, Ryan Gosling seems to be playing a watered down version of his role from La La Land. His performance is not bad at all, but just doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the film. Michael Fassbender looks just about comfortable in every role and the same goes here, but the film does no favors to his character. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where Cook narrates, “there is a beauty in their life…that makes me ugly”. It is at this moment he feels so human, but unfortunately is never treated with the same care the rest of the way.
Terrence Malick continues to divide viewers with his films, but unlike some of his most harsh critics, I don’t entirely hate his style. There is quite a bit to admire in Song to Song, but I just wish he wouldn’t confine himself to this formula that he has in mind. It is hard to call it formula because it is anything but formulaic, but for Malick it has become a routine. Maybe it is time to take this experimental style and develop further on it.