Song to Song took me on quite the roller coaster. I went from bewilderment, to thinking it was fantastic, to being sure it was Terrence Malick’s worst film, to being lulled into a trippy hypnosis, to feeling gut-punched when it was over and I desperately didn’t want it to be. It tossed me from side to side, like a t-shirt on the gentle cycle.
Responsible for this ride, in part, is Malick’s technique. (Here’s my review of Knight of Cups, if you need a refresher.) Even with a narrative that proceeds more or less chronologically, Malick does not deliver information linearly. He drops detail upon detail, until you start to get a sense of the mosaic he’s crafting. Only by standing far enough away to regard the mosaic completely can you finally form an opinion. Consequently, while watching Song to Song, it’s pretty impossible to determine how successful it is moment to moment, because each moment doesn’t necessarily connect to something else until later.
For a director who has been sailing further and further from narrative filmmaking, and has opined to his producers on more than one occasion that plots annoyed him, there sure is quite a chunk of narrative in Song to Song. Malick’s camera drifts into the world of Rooney Mara, an Austin-based songwriter who seems to be trying out myriad different styles, jobs, and identities for herself. She enters the orbit of Michael Fassbender, a very successful music producer, and Ryan Gosling, another songwriter. (Look, all these characters have names, but I honestly can’t remember if any of them are revealed in the film itself.)
These three quickly form a kind of romantic lambda. It’s not a true triangle since Fassbender and Gosling don’t have the sexy times; Mara seems to be with each one alone, with the other’s knowledge. This works for a bit, until Fassbender meets the most beautiful waitress in the history of waitresses, Natalie Portman, and casts his spell. Mara and Gosling drift apart—she eventually ends up banging some Frenchwoman and Gosling has to content himself with Cate Blanchett, continuing her trend of looking radiant in everything.
And here I go again, describing the plot of a Terrence Malick movie like it matters. Believe me when I tell you that Song to Song plays nothing like the soap opera I’m making it sound like, and that none of these romantic threads resolve themselves as a ‘typical’ film would. Actually, in some passages, it plays a bit like a celebrity Where’s Waldo: ‘Wait… is that… it is! It’s Val Kilmer! Did I just see Holly Hunter! Oh look—it’s nice to see that Tom Sturridge got some work five years ago when this was filmed. Aww, good for Patti Smith!’ Etc.
I don’t know if this is Malick’s m.o. for the rest of his days, but Song to Song finishes the trilogy begun by To the Wonder and Knight of Cups quite nicely. As for what this particular mosaic means… Well, I’ve only seen this film once, understand, but I suspect it’s right there in the title. When playing or listening to a song, that’s the only time these musicians feel alive. They live from song to song, those beautiful moments that reflect their lives, and it’s in-between that they have to deal with the world. Sure, they’re still living while the song is playing, but then they struggle with all the material bullshit until the next one comes.
Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for a cinephile’s life? Or all of our lives, probably.