Frustration, desire, and entrapment are the three words that construct the cycle that characters in Song to Song are beholden to. In much the same way, the lives of its characters are intertwined.
A lyricist, Faye (Rooney Mara), is drawn to BV (Ryan Gosling), a fellow lyricist, since he is playful yet more stable than music mogul Cook (Michael Fassbender). BV is drawn to Cook in hopes he can progress his music career while Faye is drawn to Cook for much the same reason, albeit her relationship with him holds a sexual component. Cook is drawn to BV as a friend but also perhaps as a rival because from his position of power he ensures that BV’s career remains lesser than his. On the periphery, Cook is drawn to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress struggling to make ends meet, and other women because he sees them as vulnerable. Rhonda is drawn, like every other character, to Cook in hopes he can help her attain success and wealth.
The structure of the narrative within Song to Song is loosely divided into thirds, the three tones explored being playful, somber, and reflective. Despite Terrence Malick’s reputation of avoiding narrative in his recent films, Song to Song has the most cohesive narrative- and least voiceover- since Malick’s first experimental film of this nature, The Tree of Life.
Hilarity and decadence ensues as Faye and BV partner with Cook. Faye is the ‘searcher’ that echoes Rick’s character in Knight of Cups, and BV, in a role typical for Ryan Gosling, performs with a boyish shamelessness that would’ve driven Michelle Williams’s character in Blue Valentine insane. We see Cook’s negative influence on BV in his relationship with Faye. Though holding the excitement and seductive atmosphere Faye desires, her relationship with BV is marked by not-so-subtle jabs at objectivity. “X marks the spot” BV says after Faye asks why he drew an x above her chest with lip gloss while the two are playing.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera lucidly travels its way up and down characters’ bodies although it is often some other feature in the frame that we are supposed to notice. In a scene where Faye talks with her father, the camera pans slowly down her body but stops as it reveals her arm held between the door and its handle. In the following shot, she runs her fingers down the door frame. We can tell that Faye wants to escape the conversation as soon as she can. Similarly, in an intimate scene in Cook’s bedroom, Cook is positioned within the frame in front of the open door that leads to the balcony, symbolically preventing Faye from attaining freedom.
In traveling to and performing within the music scene in Austin, TX, Faye and BV desire an identity different than their own. It’s implied that they will possess a new, better identity if they attain success. In one scene BV crossdresses for Faye’s amusement and in another scene shortly thereafter he takes Cook’s sport coat and wears it, observing the coat’s stiffness makes him walk differently. Malick utilizes minor scenes in this manner to characterize his four leads. It’s actually difficult to not uncover the relevance of a scene despite his films’ experimental nature.
Genre of music in Song to Song echoes the emotion of its characters; punk is gradually phased-out and classical music emerges as the film becomes more somber in tone. In the second act of the film, Cook offers Faye a record deal, something she had long desired, yet she questions her success. Did she earn the deal because of her continued efforts in the music industry or did she earn the deal because of her affair with Cook? She eventually leaves BV after admitting her infidelity and distances herself from Cook as well. The film’s final act takes on a reflective tone as Faye thinks less about music and more about her morality and personal qualities, noticing that she isn’t able to make others happy in her life. Like in Knight of Cups, Malick’s lead determines that pursuing art in the big city isn’t conducive to self-actualization or success.
Song to Song includes the familiar visual palette and usage of symbolism that Malick utilizes in each of his films. Shots of water and shots that include the sun within the frame are prevalent. Water symbolizes purity in this context as BV rubs water on Faye’s arm as a symbolic baptism and rebirth of her character. A motif unique to Song to Song are scenes of driving. Faye and BV drive often together but their departure and destination are irrelevant- they drive everywhere but ultimately get nowhere.
Unfortunately, it is hard to tell what Song to Song offers us that Malick’s other films do not. Song to Song shares the prevalent water and sun visual motifs that define The Thin Red Line, the romance of To The Wonder, familiar shots and greater extent of narrative that The Tree of Life possesses, and a number of the same narrative beats as Knight of Cups.
Maybe the film was an effort to appease audiences who had fallen out of love with his work since The Tree of Life. If anything, Song to Song is the ‘pop’, ‘audience-friendly’ rendition of Knight of Cups. Love or hate Malick, those who didn’t recognize something in this film simply weren’t trying. Even though the film begs the question of why it was made (though, can anyone claim to have deciphered a Malick film fully?), Song to Song is a meditative, contemplative- use whatever word you will- experience in itself.