Great experimental filmmaking often splits its audience into two groups. The first may deem the lack of convention messy and the second may praise its divergence from traditional structure and presentation. “Song to Song,” Terence Malick’s new film is made for the latter, offering a tantalizing, eccentric and emotionally-dense portrayal of the music scene in Austin, Texas.
Malick is not exactly known for abiding commercial filmmaking standards. Instead his movies find color and personality in their divergence from convention, an approach that has thrived in his recent films “The Tree of Life,” “To The Wonder” and “Knight of Cups.”
Starring Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, the film mostly uses this musical association as a backdrop, instead focusing on a complicated and continuously unravelling love triangle between singer/songwriters BV (Gosling), Faye (Mara) and the wealthy music producer Cook (Fassbender) who offers BV a record deal.
However, this is not the two-hour episode of “Nashville” this synopsis makes it out to be. The film looks at these relationships with wavering, avant-garde detail, using Malick’s fragmented style of filmmaking to reveal deep, philosophical truths about these characters that go far deeper than surface level proclamations like “I love you,” “I hate you” and “I miss you.” At first they come off as collected and driven by their image, but through the off-kilter trials of Malick’s filmmaking, they become fleshed out and vivid with individual conflicts. These are characters that demand to be understood, but take time to comprehend.
“Song to Song” is an experimental film in every sense of the word. Instead of focusing on a traditional narrative, Malick prioritizes the mood of each scene, deconstructing it and forcing the audience to see it in different ways. He creates this mood through intensely stylized cinematography and set design, giving the movie a dreamy quality while also maintaining a sense of emotional grit necessary for character development.
What immediately sticks out about this film is the camera angles. Instead of framing traditional shots, Malick often uses off-kilter angles and movements to document each scene, often using it in a first-person manner that allows the viewer to feel like they are present in the conversations. This grants a sense of emotional urgency that is hard to ignore. This urgency is also furthered by the improvisational charm of each scene. The dialogue feels spontaneous and loose, never feeling rehearsed or scripted.
“Song to Song” is not a movie that reveals itself easily. Many scenes and conversations are left up to personal interpretation and the haunting, poetic voiceovers from multiple characters make them profound and thematically dense. However, getting to the heart of them reveals a film with deep, philosophical musings on love, sexuality, art, vanity and the struggle of trying to find yourself and project that authentically when those around you are more concerned with appearances—a common thread among artists and musicians where eccentricity, whether it is honest or deliberate, is often an adventurous and alluring trait.
Out of all the performances in this film, from the suave, sentimental charm of Gosling to Fassbender’s manipulative, fragile recklessness, Mara steals the show. She is elegant and innocent with a constant undercurrent of emotional uncertainty and she often expresses this without saying anything at all.
Despite its setting in Austin, Texas, one of America’s musical epicenters, the musical themes in the film tend to take the backseat. Malick instead chooses to focus on the off-stage lives of these characters. Although, the film does feature cameos from many notable musicians. Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and former Sex Pistol’s member Jon Lyndon all make appearances. The rock outfit The Black Lips stood in as Mara’s band and singer/songwriter Lykke Li played a small role as Gosling’s former lover as well.
Should you watch it? Yes.
“Song to Song” is by no means a conventional film and its themes take time to unravel, but its sharp, colorful visuals, emotionally dense characters and hard-hitting commentaries that sit below the surface are a treat for anyone willing to dig a little deeper. Malick is a master at making movies that are hard to forget and this is no exception.