I’m a huge fan of Terrence Malick, but I have to admit that Song to Song (2017) gets away from him. It’s still full of gorgeous shots and all that, but each individual element is just a bit subpar, resulting in an unsatisfying film overall.
Richard Brody’s review is quite telling: Instead of the kind of masterful interpretation he deployed for other Malick films like Knight of Cups (2015), he mostly argues that there is a discernible plot, by recapping it. He could’ve done this for any Malick film, and it’s frankly unnecessary after Malick has made seven other narrative features, each with a discernible plot. As for actual criticism, Brody notes the film’s youthful energy and beautiful imagery, and that’s about it. However, when he says that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski’s camerawork is “beatifically graceful, seemingly borderless,” I immediately thought of examples of forced handheld pans chasing the actors. I agree more with Matt Zoller Seitz’s verdict that the film “doesn’t click as it should.” All the formal elements he faults exist in most of Malick’s other films, but, lacking that specifically Malickian brand of coherence, this film makes them feel artificial and, yes, pretentious. Seitz doesn’t venture a reason for this problem, so I will.
I think this one doesn’t work because Malick was hampered by the fact that the film’s premise is inimical to its thematic argument, the same issue that sinks Ready Player One (2018). He wants to portray the Austin music scene as full of an energy high powered by fame, a high that is a simulacrum of and distraction from truly meaningful (romantic) connections and/or meaningful music creation; he sticks the landing, but the ostensible cesspool is never compelling enough to render the morality tale aspect plausible. Malick subconsciously keeps all the ruckus at arm’s length, as seen in his use of some expository voiceovers in early scenes, and since his heart’s not fully in it, the uniquely Malickian suspension of disbelief dies.
This is despite the great acting by Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and (ok fine) Ryan Gosling, alongside some fruitful technical innovations. The use of GoPro for some Malickian nature shots gives them a nostalgic quality, evoking early music videos; and the handful of flirting scenes shot from the man’s POV—in which we see his hand, and the woman looks into the camera—offers us an electrifying sense of immediacy, a literal rendering of the male gaze.