Terrence Malick’s Song to Song film review: A masterpiece, life-changing and other superlatives I stand by

The notes I made during the screening of Song to Song start out fairly legible and coherent but descend into the kind of scrawl you associate with a journal that, in retrospect, explains what led to a state lines-straddling car chase. “How devastating to be a human being” I apparently wrote, the phrase’s outside-the-lines angle having as much to do with the mental state the film induced at the time as the low-level light in the screening room. Once the credits rolled and I, nigh on shaking, managed to prize myself from my seat – I imagine leaving behind some sort of soul residue – I exited onto the street and instinctively put on my headphones in preparation for the walk to the nearest tube station, only to pull them off moments later. I usually have no trouble making the cognitive switch to “listening to music mode” after watching brilliant films, but this one needed longer to marinate in my mind; it demanded a silent, chilly walk through emptying Soho.

The film is the latest feature from Terrence Malick, a director so polarising that the poles have snapped off by this point. I loathed “best films ever” list-making The Tree of Life (2011) and failed to be grabbed by Knight of Cups (2015), and so gauged my expectations accordingly in spite of the pretty amazing leading cast (Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman) and a setting close to my heart (Austin).

What official synopses lead you to believe this film is about:

A “modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene” in which two entangled couples “chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal”.

What this film is actually about (i.e. not Austin nor music):

Our uncanny ability to be absolutely shitty to the people we love, whether our virtues are actually performative rather than authentic and innate, and how we are pulled toward the people in our past in a way that would be inadequately described as gravitational.

A bit about why you shouldn’t sneer at Song to Song’s pretensions, even though it’s tempting to:

Malick is one of the most parody-ready filmmakers working right now, so idiosyncratic and unapologetically ambiguous is his cinematic style. As ever here, the camera wanders like a nervous party guest who doesn’t quite know where to stand, leering drunkenly at the characters, peaking over their shoulders or self-consciously averting its gaze. The actors’ tactile…

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