The premise of Terrence Malick’s newest film, Song to Song, seems to have stemmed from a thought whispered by Jessica Chastain in his 2011 masterwork, The Tree of Life. Warmly and earnestly, Chastain warns her sons that, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
This idea undoubtedly epitomizes much of Malick’s Song to Song, which chronicles the lives of musicians living within the Austin, Texas’ vibrantly chaotic music scene. Those looking for a film with a sturdy plot and a three-act structure should be warned that, like Malick’s other films following The Tree of Life, this film too throws plot by the wayside in favor of wispy images accompanied by voiceover narration. Faye (Rooney Mara) finds herself aloof in Austin, unable to be tied down, bouncing between partners like BV (Ryan Gosling) and the sinister Cook (Michael Fassbender). Rhonda (Natalie Portman) also figures prominently, as she too becomes entranced by Cook’s sly charisma and impressive wealth as a music producer. Adrift, lonely, and scared, these characters spend the runtime searching for some semblance of real love, in a world seemingly deprived of it.
Malick’s film stands at odds with much of what every other filmmaker today is doing. If most films are described linearly, as a sequence of events, then Malick’s film exists more as a portrait—time seems to stop and go with the wind, and characters enter and leave the story just as unpredictably. Beautiful images saturate the screen, and leave before the mind can register what they mean. This type of experimental filmmaking should be cherished for its novelty and its riskiness; the collective feeling of having experienced Song to Song marvelously overwhelms.
Even while featuring an assortment of A-listers like Gosling, Fassbender, Mara, and Portman, the film’s stars are writer/director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick’s grand vision is incredibly ambitious, as he brings together a medley of philosophical ideas with the beautiful images provided by Lubezki’s wandering camera. Often, a character would mutter something incredibly profound—the stillness and patient beauty of the film gave viewers ample time to ponder such questions. Under Malick’s direction, characters act like real human beings, showing their love in delicate touches, playful tackles, and tender hugs. Furthermore, Lubezki’s images evoke the fleeting nature of memory: how we seem to hold dearly onto small fragmented moments that serve to define certain time in our life or an old relationship. The effect, therefore, of having seen Malick’s film, is that one seems to recall the fictional relationships depicted in ephemeral moments of time, as if viewers had lived through the events of the film.
Malick never steers away from moralizing in his film. In many ways, this separates Malick from the majority of present-day filmmakers, as he attempts to share insight through his film—a certain seriousness and true concern are exuded by his film. He portrays the limitations and longing that come as a result of living a life of hedonism. Early in the film, Faye recounts her days with Cook, recalling that she preferred rough sex and rough music; in hindsight, she realizes she preferred this roughness because it was the only thing she could feel. Inundating ourselves with the sensory and emotional pleasures of life, Malick would contend, desensitizes people from these basic pleasures. Moreover, when Faye or Cook are dominated by lust or ulterior motives, the film seems to speed by—following through on Malick’s contention that without love, “life will flash by,” Contrarily, when BV and Faye become aware of the deeply felt love shared between them, Faye tenderly urges BV to go “slower, it’s a love story.”
Song to Song is not a film for everyone. Quite often, the film screeches down to a halt and asks of its viewers to be patient. Characters almost never speak to one another and the plot is seemingly meaningless. Coming to terms with the film’s abnormalities will surely help filmgoers appreciate the imaginative vision presented. Still, the value in Song to Song lies in the collective experience of having watched it, as a newly found sense of moral understanding and clarity may arise as a result.
Featured Image By Broad Green Pictures