Movie Review: ‘Song to Song’

Directed by: Terrance Malick

Starring: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman

Plot:  A couple and a waitress are dragged into rock and roll temptation by a music producer.


I like Terrance Malick’s movies, in theory. They are like National Geographic documentaries. They have this curious camera that candidly moves through scenes looking for emotions as if they are animals to be glimpsed at briefly in the wild. They throw out all pretense of having a storyline of any sort thus becoming more like a song, an amorphous depiction of emotion. For me, that sort of robs it of its empathy. Cinema has been about sharing an emotional experience, and music has been about recognizing someone else’s objective emotional truth. I know that’s not the case for everyone, but it is true for me.

You would think this kind of style would work really well with a movie that takes place in the music industry, but that always feels like a post-script. A recent tribute video to Malick depicted his focus on capturing the elements. Water. Earth. Air. And fire.(Watch it here). Music is just as elemental, and I would have loved for Malick to make it a much more significant part of this movie. It does include the likes of Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and Patti Smith to give it some legitimacy by proxy, but the music itself never gets to play a major part. Even the few scenes, shot on site at the Austin City Limits Festival, sounded more like noise than music. It works only as a “MacGuffin” to move the characters forward.

Malick doesn’t just move his characters forward though. He moves them in circles. They could move forward. They probably do move forward if the scenes payed out sequentially, but they don’t. Song to Song (and Knight of Cups, which was shot simultaneously) both feel like there was actual narratives that were abandoned. They seem like they were deconstructed for the sake of appearing like Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both of which I happen to like and thematically fit the style a hell of a lot more. It does a disservice to the four main cast members. They are reduced to props to be used in Malick’s continuing quest to capture the elements. Which is too bad, because when they can capture his focus, even for a second, you can tell how much work they are putting in to their characters. 

Rating: 3/10