Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.
When it comes to Terrence Malick there are those that love his work and then there are those that don’t really get it. Admittedly, I firmly fall into the latter camp. For those people that seek out Malick’s work, that gobble up his special brand of “filmmaking,” Song to Song delivers exactly what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, it’s just cold and pretentious.
Malick is more concerned with building a mood and doing it in a way that is captivating to the eye, if not entirely engaging for the mind.
One of the most difficult aspects of Malick’s most recent output is that it doesn’t really conform to the typical definitions of film or story. Whereas many films are akin to novels, Malick’s work is much more poetic. It doesn’t really like to waste its time with the conventions of natural story progression, dialogue, or character development as we’ve come to know it. Instead, in Song to Song, much like Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, Malick is more concerned with building a mood and doing it in a way that is captivating to the eye, if not entirely engaging for the mind.
That makes Song to Song difficult to describe. It’s being touted as a film about Austin, the local music scene, and love. And to be sure, it is certainly a film about love. However, it is only tangentially the other things. Malick uses Austin as his backdrop, but it isn’t the character that it was made out to be. In fact, the Austin seen in Song to Song is unlike any that I’ve ever experienced. It is detached from reality, an Austin that I imagine only a wealthy transplant from California gets to experience. And in that same way, it isn’t about music, using the idea as an excuse to feature random musicians and several shots of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, but it’s not like any of it is germane to the story.
I suppose Malick’s films aren’t to be understood in the conventional sense. For it’s not about fully comprehending how all of these beats coalesce into a cohesive story. Rather, Malick seeks out to capture a mood. In the central relationship of the film, between Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara’s characters (which IMDB insists have names, although I struggle to remember hearing them) there is buried a somewhat beautiful and heartbreaking amorous rise and fall. The trouble is figuring out how all of the other pieces fit in.
Michael Fassbender shows up in a somewhat cartoon villain role, a role that he devours ravenously, and he seems only there to represent some kind of American greed and destruction. Then a subplot with Natalie Portman arises before quickly vanishing. Oh and then Val Kilmer shows up, for little other reason than to go nuts. It’s positively cluttered, and the thought of additional characters like Christian Bale or Benicio del Toro, roles that end up on the cutting room floor, leaves me baffled as to how they could have possibly added to the proceedings.
Regardless of how I feel about Malick’s exceedingly masturbatory ways, there is no denying that the man assembles a beautiful looking film.
Regardless of how I feel about Malick’s exceedingly masturbatory ways, there is no denying that the man assembles a beautiful looking film. Collaborating yet again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song is positively a treat for the eye. The duo is able to put something to film that is nearly dreamlike in its execution, floating around the subjects untethered from gravity and seemingly able to extend that beautifully lit “magic hour” into a feature length. It leaves me torn. I find Malick’s current form of filmmaking to be insufferable, yet I cannot help but marvel at the cinematic beauty that he puts before my eyes.
Despite my appreciation for the aesthetic of Song to Song, I struggle to find a way to recommend it to others. It comes boasting the typical trappings of a Terrence Malick film, very sparse dialogue, breathy narration, low angle shots, and story as an afterthought. Outside of the more standard Malick-isms, Song to Song also has a troubling relationship with women, making their role secondary to a man’s and establishing a mood of objectification. Portman and Mara are at the mercy of their male counterparts and every moment of sexualization is off-putting in its aggression. It’s just one more odd note in a nearly surrealist experience. As a study in cinematography, Song to Song is worth a visit, but its hard to find any other reason for appreciation.
As a study in cinematography, Song to Song is worth a visit, but its hard to find any other reason for appreciation.