An extravagant fusion of high artificiality with vivid naturalism, a style that grants an ordinary story an extraordinary sense of dense, expressive richness.
Tumbling into the modern world with the same wide-eyed curiosity displayed in his epically scaled period pieces, Terrence Malick’s recent films have sought out glimmers of sublimity in everyday scenarios, exploring eccentric sub-currents within the larger flow of broadly-sketched, archetypal stories. In doing so, he’s retained the central thematic construct of a search for some semblance of balance, as characters struggle to center themselves amid tumultuous personal circumstances, conditions reflected by a constantly roving camera and an equivalently expressive eye for carving up cinematic space. Cast out of a variety of proverbial Edens, his players rotate around one another in the desperate search for a return to that total fulfillment, inevitably discovering that such perfection can only be experienced in fleeting glimpses.
Song to Song continues the director’s contemporary focus by plunging into the Austin music scene, a setting rendered typically exotic by his director’s sui generis approach. The primary plot charts the stories of a set of characters, all revolving around this shared community, as their lives sporadically intersect. Chief among them are young dreamers Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), who fall in love almost immediately upon meeting, but find their unity obstructed by a series of obstacles, mostly embodied in the magnetic allure of Mephistophelean producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), a mansion-dwelling mogul who sees vice as a means of manifesting his power over others. Flitting from this central story to encompass Cook’s and others, the film’s sturdiest constant is it impressionistic, amorphously complex visual structure, which scraps straightforward realism for a dizzying mosaic view of its proceedings.
Forged in collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, this style is founded on a program of quick cuts, unusual perspectives and constant movement, fostering a free-roaming atmosphere of unbordered freedom during the film’s early going, while expressing heavy gravitational duress during its darker later passages. Collecting hundreds of hours of raw, often improvised footage, Malick exploits the full possibilities of digital to create an aesthetic in which each scene feels composed of dozens of long takes chopped down to their essential defining moments, as bodies orbit helplessly around one another, the space between them and the movements which fill it communicating far more than the sparse dialogue and solemn voiceover.
This sculptural process yields a movie that feels both vaguely familiar and entirely unique, overflowing with memorable images and an inclusive sense of empathetic benevolence. Aiming to capture the spiritual essence of the world it depicts, Malick pulls together what amounts to a pointillist musical, in which tiny incidental details, scraps of song and repeated gestures cohere to form a larger patchwork portrait. The results put well-intentioned, spit-shined dreck like La La Land to shame, paying tribute to the spirit of the genre while completely reconfiguring its standard presentation.
Where that film sought to reconnect to a supposedly lost tradition by aping the musical’s most recognizable signifiers, Song to Song instead roots down to its core, figuring out new ways to convey the complexities of idealized passion. Grand spectacle is thus reimagined here via a scintillating small-focus aesthetic that acutely strives to communicate the feeling of bare feet in the grass, of the comforting security of a loving relationship or the shocking beauty of a sudden sunset, rather than settling for a blander evocation of such feelings in tightly choreographed extravaganzas.
Building upon its singular shooting style, the film parallels these brief flashes of transcendence with shots of beautiful people plunked down into free-form unscripted scenarios, giving what are functionally documentary outtakes an instrumental purpose. Made even more jarring by the frequent inclusion of strange celebrity cameos, these hangout scenes take place amid seething crowds, backstage at venues or in quaint Mexican town squares, commingling bits of atmospheric B-roll with fresh footage of its principals interacting, caught somewhere between their performed roles and real-life leisure. Moments like this are emblematic of what Malick achieves in Song to Song, an extravagant fusion of high artificiality with vivid naturalism, a style that grants an ordinary story an extraordinary sense of dense, expressive richness.