Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Over the past decade, Terrence Malick films have not just become a parody of themselves, but of the arthouse film as a whole. Since The Tree of Life divided audiences worldwide in 2011 as either being a cinematic revelation or a pretentious piece of slog, Malick has done little to prove to his doubters that he is capable of convincing them otherwise. His last two outings, 2012’s To the Wonder and 2015’s Knight of Cups, are uncompromisingly experimental and vague and are widely regarded as critical failures.
All of the aforementioned films of Malick follow the same design: improvisational acting and voice work from Hollywood A-listers that follow a loose narrative featuring striking and up-close cinematography as Malick’s characters muse over the existential ideas of life. Some claim that Malick’s distinct and unusual style is innovative and free of boundaries, pieces of art that are not made for petty entertainment but in understanding the human condition. Others argue they are overly long and snobbish pieces that act as if they have something profound to say but easily say nothing.
Clearly, there are some who get Malick’s films and some who will have none of it. 2017’s Song to Song does little to change this argument.
Speaking broadly, Song to Song is just another Malick film; indistinguishable from any other of his recent titles. The voiceovers remain vague, philosophical, and soft-spoken; the A-listers remain beautiful and stoic; the houses remain modern and refuse to use anything other than glass walls. If you are already cynical of Malick’s style, there’s no reason to bother.
However, Song to Song offers a story a bit more grounded in its scope and clearer in its narrative that makes it slightly easier to draw a connection from or project meaning to— this is compared to the all-encompassing ambition of The Tree of Life, so take “grounded” with an unusually massive grain of salt.
The film follows a toxic love triangle between two aspiring songwriters (Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling) and a successful and controlling record producer (Michael Fassbender) as they try to make sense of love and life in the Austin, Texas music scene.
An immediate critique of Song to Song again applies Malick’s films in general. Though all of the actors are given a basic “summary” of events specific to a place and people, these films could happen anywhere and often ignore their setting in favor of focusing on the human condition. It makes one wonder what the point of even trying to present these films as different stories and premises when, in reality, they are almost entirely interchangeable.
Song to Song flourishes, however, in its exploration of relationships. The dreamlike and often stunning visuals combined with the chemistry between the actors invoke the feeling that one is lost in the fever dream of living life — trying to grasp meaning and make sense of what direction you are going in, but hopelessly failing to do so until your life has passed. The voiceovers, which now contend with Christian Bale’s Batman voice in their lack of self-awareness, offer a bit more purpose here, as they can be interpreted as the subconscious voice people hear in their heads that constantly speaks as they grapple with the relationships they choose. People don’t always listen or even know it’s there, but, eventually, they realize they have been fundamentally true all along. This is just a single interpretation, however. Like every other movie mentioned, Malick’s pictures are what you make of them, and often require you to bring something to the table in order to garner some sort of meaning.
The acting and story is, again, improvisational, which is by design and intriguing in theory but ends up resulting in little more than the same conventional arc present in almost every familiar romance narrative. Couples fall in and out of love, hurt each other and come back to one another, and so the cycle continues. The idea of improvising on such a grand scale is fascinating, but if it results in the same formula everyone knows, one has to wonder what the point of making audiences go through such hurdles to follow along even are. It is a common point argued by Malick’s critics, and it a prominent presence here as well.
Song to Song is too long, too ambitious, and doesn’t do all that much to establish its own identity, immediately at least. Malick continuously proves to be a director who is infuriatingly brilliant and painstakingly meticulous but doesn’t know how to connect with the average moviegoer anymore. Though at this stage of his life that should not come as a surprise, as he is clearly making films for himself alone and continues to be a fascinating auteur in the world of cinema if nothing else. Perhaps his movies will reveal themselves to be otherworldly masterpieces that are simply ahead of their time, or simply be remembered to most as a big beautiful nothing. It’s what you make of it, really. And that has to count for something.
Overall Grade: B
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