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Song to Song – Movie Review

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Song to Song – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy eOne Films

Terrence Malick’s recent output has been one of contention among cinephiles. Once revered for his amazing visual eye and use of classical music, many feel he has become a parody of himself. However, there are still those who support his vision and freewheeling directing approach. Malick is clearly comfortable with this current loose phase of his career, so wishing for another Days of Heaven seems almost fruitless at this point. Song to Song is a step-up from his previous effort Knight of Cups, in that it seems to have actual characters and arcs. Malick eventually loses the plot after the first hour, leaving a second hour of required patience on the viewer’s part.

Song to Song is, at its core, a love story and there is a clear motivation behind the characters’ actions. Using an Austin music festival at his backdrop, Malick explores the relationships that form beyond the stage at these environments. The romance that grows between Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara, and one would have to be forgiven for only seeing the actors rather than the characters, does seem genuine with the necessary elements of heartbreak and uncertainty that come from a relationship. The friendship between Gosling and Michael Fassbender as they seek to create music is also more of an arc than we’ve seen in the past couple of Malick films. There are more conversations here than were featured in To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, allowing for better insight than his trademark narration normally does.

Malick’s use of montage also works to Song to Song’s advantage early on, with his three principal editors piecing them together with the music in a way that still develops the rather threadbare story and its participants. The most fascinating comparison that can be made between his current crop of films and his early output is the shift in focus from working class people trying to get by to well-off folks who can just jet off to Mexico on a whim. One could analyse that these films have an emptiness in them to reflect that. Or, more likely, he lacks a screenplay and an editor to reign him in. There is a heavy improvisational quality to the performances here, fittingly as Malick traditionally crafts his films in the editing room.

The second hour of Song to Song starts to fall into the usual Terrence Malick annoyances. The story loses focus, with only occasional glimmers that he is trying to say something. Short appearances from Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer and Cate Blanchett show up, cut from hours of footage. There’s little insight gained from these characters and it becomes a wait until the end as he shows field after window sill. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, so key in their collaborations on The New World and The Tree of Life, now has a cheap digital look to it. Malick lovingly filming his female leads is hardly new. He has been doing that since he started shooting Sissy Spacek in Badlands. However, there is an uncomfortable male gaze with which he points the camera at Mara and Natalie Portman. He wants the audience to admire their beauty, but there’s a leery quality to how he displays them. There are a couple of scenes where the film veers dangerously close to becoming pornography.

Terrence Malick still has his passionate admirers and followers who find joy in the art gallery pieces he releases on the few cinema screens who will take them. His current films are not without their merits. Song to Song does seem to have more to say, but his loose shooting style will definitely not be to everyone’s tastes. Malick seems completely uninterested in following the rulebook and that’s perfectly acceptable. However, important elements like pacing are still key in gaining audience investment and Song to Song loses that in its second hour. Opinions will be varied on this new film, just as they were on To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. That does succeed in keeping Malick in the conversation among cinephile circles.


Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison