Song to Song / Terrence Malick / 2017 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Concentration on character; Elliptical editing
Side Effects: Thematically thinner than most Malick films


There’s a style of image that detractors of Terrence Malick are quick to point out, a sort of critical low-hanging fruit: sun-dappled closeups of hands passing over stalks in a wheat field. Or else women twirling, often in those very same fields. You’ll see variations on this image in The New World and The Tree of Life. They’re all over To the Wonder. Detractors find these images pretentious, I suppose, cheaply beatific and all too earnest. And they become emblematic of Malick’s entire style: unabashedly poetic and unfashionably yearning.

What’s less often pointed out about these kind of images in Malick’s films, is the purpose they serve: to emphasize the sensation of touch. What other filmmaker is so attuned to the specific physical quality of objects in the room? To the warmth of sunlight?

This emphasis on physical touch is particularly important to Malick’s newest film, Song to Song, a film of unusually tenderness. A tale of intersection love affairs, the film again and again foregrounds hands reaching for hands, or caressing necks or shoulders with the trepidation and urgency we may all feel seeking a connection. It’s by turn sad, sensual, sexy, and sensitive.

Song to Song may also be Malick’s most nakedly emotional film. Of course, it’s stylistically of a piece with both To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, but I think it shares much more with the former. The entanglements among the characters are similarly geometric, and the soul of this film is more romantic than the unresolved existential emptiness of Knight of Cups.

This is a film about souls in transition, but Malick seems motivated to explore them as people and not only as a metaphor. (This may account for why Knight of Cups feels “richer” while Song to Song feels “purer.”) Malick’s experience as an in-demend Hollywood screenwriter in the 1970s is clear around the fringes of Song to Song—he’s still capable of imagining a compelling story (as distinct from mere plotting), but I sense a renewed interested in exploring that style here. This bodes well for the upcoming Radegund, purportedly a return to more “conventional” filmmaking.

For proof of this facility of characterization, take, for example, the few brief vignettes that introduce Natalie Portman’s character. These almost disconnected images and snatches of dialogue paint Portman as a fully-formed individual, an individual who just happens to collide with the world of the film, someone whose past stretches beyond the scope of the story. In another example, we quickly and intuitively understand the inherent goodness of the film’s central pair, played by Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling. The film loosely constructs itself around their struggle to affirm and nurture this goodness through each other.