Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
A dream-like kaleidoscopic descent into the madness of Austin, Texas, and the relationships on display in the film, Song to Song feels akin to a short film from Stan Brakhage or Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Echoes of Jean-Luc Godard at his most experimental can also be heard with Malick standing alongside Godard as both extend a middle finger to audiences that wish to receive a normal viewing experience. With a loose connection of images and a free-wheeling approach to scenes and cutting, Song to Song is most certainly lyrical and poetic, but it mostly feels hollow. Its themes are compelling, but haphazardly composed and never rise to the level of importance bestowed upon them by the distant and experimental nature of the film. As a result, it is a hell of a tough watch and not the easiest 129 minutes of filmgoing I have ever experienced. With loose connections to be drawn between scenes, there is a common thread, but there is so much fluff and excess surrounding it, that core seems to get lost in the shuffle.
A deeply spiritual filmmaker by nature, Malick infuses Song to Song with a lot of overt references to God, human nature, and sin. Juxtaposing scenes of Cook (Michael Fassbender) and Rhonda (Natalie Portman) engaging in a three-way with a prostitute with that very same prostitute telling Rhonda that she wants God to come save her, it is clear that there is a deeply religious film. It is through this context that the film's core themes reveal themselves: temptation, love, and experience. Explaining in a voice-over early on that she wishes to experience everything, Faye (Rooney Mara) does just that. She has a highly conventional relationship with BV (Ryan Gosling), a solely physical affair with Cook, and even a few lesbian encounters. Yet, none of these fulfill her. As her initial voice-over noted, she needed every experience to be above and beyond its normal level for her to actual feel it ("the sex needed to be violent"), or else the moment would drift away and she would float on to the next one.
Yet, by the end, she has come back. She gives into temptation with Cook, but comes back to BV at the end and is willing to toss away experiencing life in Austin and replace it with living life with BV in small town America. Faye's journey in this film is one played out in real life and film many times before, though not nearly as dressed up as in Song to Song. She is a girl who is unhappy with herself, as shown in her conversations with her father, and is unsure of what she wants. As a result, she tries everything. She never says no, even when she is hesitant or unsure and regardless of who can be hurt by her actions. Instead, she flies by the seat of her pants and dives head first into the pool of life. Unfortunately for she realizes nearly too late that what truly made her happy and feel in touch with the world was what she had initially and now, she must find her way back to that life and that experience by returning to BV. Considering how dense the film itself is, for it to be able to be boiled down - mostly - into just that description really speaks as to how fluff-filled Song to Song is at 129 minutes.
Malick does add depth, however, with that aforementioned religious parallels. For the film, the character of Cook often comes to represent temptation and could be described as being Satan-esque, if not Satan himself. Presenting temptation to everybody in the film, he drives them all of their pre-ordained paths by offering them a world of experience. For Faye, he promises sexual pleasure that she had never before felt with Cook being adventurous and a generous lover. For BV, he promises to help him make a record deal that would allow him to have the world (classic Lucifer stuff here). For Rhonda, he promises an escape from her job as a waitress and to experience a world she had never been in before. Yet, it all backfires. Faye continues to jump from experience-to-experience and hits bottom when she realizes her father is disappointed in her. BV continues to struggle as a musician and realizes that Cook filed copyrights for BV's songs under Cook's name only, essentially stealing his work. Rhonda is driven into depression and driven away from her mother Miranda (Holly Hunter) to the point that she is suicidal. Promising the world to all that he encounters, Cook frequently engages in sexual sins with three-ways and intense promiscuity while corrupting everybody he touches and dragging them down in hellfire along with himself. As Rhonda notes in a voice-over, he is a destructive force. Yet, Cook embraces his tempting ways, explaining that "people want to be deceived". In essence, he is merely giving people what they want, so what is wrong with that? He is a selfish and harmful being, whether or not he is actually Satan. He is a man that seeks to drive people off the path with empty promises with the sole goal of fulfilling his own needs and sucking the life out of their soul.
The film's themes further reveal themselves via a quote, again, from Faye in a voice-over. Explaining that they, she and BV, lived from "song to song" plays a factor throughout. Frequently, Malick includes a diegetic song playing alongside a moment where characters experience something or somebody new. When BV and Faye first meet, they listen to a song together. BV does the same when he meets Amanda (Cate Blanchett) later on in the film. Faye when she meets Zoey (Berenice Marlohe). Cook and Faye. Cook and Rhonda. Everybody has some sort of diegetic music accompanying them meeting or forging their relationship, especially when they are some concert in the Austin area. For Malick's film, "living song to song" equates to each song signaling a change-up. From the point the song is played, that person's story changes. Either they are driven further down in the rabbit hole or self-hatred and sin or they experience a new relationship. As the film is set in Austin, known for its music scene, it is clear that the constant changes aligning with a new song being played is hardly coincidental. Partially a nod to the city itself, partially an attempt to capture the aesthetic and free wheeling nature of the city, and partially a symbolic way to equate the film itself with an album with each new song telling a different story and using a different instrumental, Song to Song's usage of its title in the film is hardly a throwaway. Instead, it is a key that audiences must use to unlock the mysteries of the film.
As an album, its disjointed nature is explainable and its constantly switch-ups more so, as the film jumps from moment to moment like the beat of a single song changing or altering the melody and then completely altering the arrangement when a new song comes on. Whether the songs are any good, however, is certainly unclear. Songs in which BV and Faye indulge in their relationship in impeccably cute moments with Malick adorning these moments with gorgeous shots of the landscape, the film plays like a beautiful piano ballad written by a lover for their partner. Other moments, such as Cook engaging in sex with any number of women - both part of the main cast and not - play like a sultry and emotionally chaotic song. Moments of Faye or Rhonda expressing their regrets to their parents are akin to a solemn and forlorn guitar-led and mostly acapella song about their past misgivings and attempts to right their ship. Yet, others, such as those at the concerts, are like loud and fast-paced rock songs about rebellion and rising up against the system that holds you down. In essence, this is an album and film that is pulling inspiration from everywhere. It is highly experimental in the way it is composed, written, and performed, with Malick trying to find what works best. Some scenes clunk and rattle, while others hum with beautiful efficiency. It is an album with extreme highs, rock bottom lows, and moments that present a mixed bag. As a result of all of this, Song to Song lacks any sense of cohesion or flow. Though each moment does play into the next, their accompanying songs being so stylistically different from one another lead to a film that feels disjointed and jumbled.
This is mirrored in the editing of the film that feels scattershot at best. In an interview as part of an Actors roundtable, actor Christopher Plummer lamented how Malick desperately needs a writer that is not himself. This is most certainly true, but he clearly needs some editors too. While not edited by himself, rather a team or three, it is obvious that the director will have a lot of influence as to how the final cut will be spliced together. Thus, he either needs to fully hand the reins over or take some constructive criticism on board. With the editing jumping from moment-to-moment rapidly and these moments often clashing with one another as actors jump from one side of the screen to the other, this is highly experimental, but an absolute terror to watch. These quick cuts also lead to a highly fractured film with it feeling as though the entire film is merely a trailer for a much longer one. As a result, it skims through moments, cuts some short, and jumps between moments freely with plenty of inter-cutting as moments play out simultaneously. Attempting to be lyrical through these methods, the film instead has this weird aesthetical flow. It feels halted, lacking any sort of lyricism as a result, and wholly uninterested with telling any sort of story or communicating any sort of theme. Instead, it merely wants to mash images together, without regard for how those images actually go with one another. As the film was first shot in 2012 with reshoots occurring seemingly every year since and then being cut down from eight hours to just over two, it is obvious why this is the case, as it feels as if the film simply spiraled out of Malick's control. Thus, he opted to splice together moments of all that he had and the end result is a film that has some themes and moments of brilliance, but feels altogether like a collage more than an actual film.
That is not to say, however, that the film is not artistically creative and impressive. As with any Malick directed film, there is an obsession with the scenery of the world the characters inhabit. Often times, characters walk right off the screen and Malick never bothers to move the camera. At others, he willingly moves the camera away from the action. Always focusing on the background with characters often occupying the far right or far left of the frame, Malick focuses in on the background and scenery surrounding them, rather than the situation itself. The end result is a sunset-heavy take on Austin and one that highlights the simple beauties of the world around us, allowing the camera to breathe and soak in the sheer awe-inspiring luminosity of a sun shining on an open field or between branches on a tree. Yet, Malick still innovates. Often utilizing an extremely wide angle lens, it not only allows him more space to capture everything he wants to fit in the frame, but creates this curvature effect. In particular, a scene in which BV and Faye goof away has this wide angle lens as well as a swish pan between the two of them. The resultant curvature of the screen is possibly disorienting, but makes this seemingly innocuous inclusion feel like an artistic achievement unlike any other in the film. Often utilizing these pans, tilts, swishing of both, and oblique angles, Malick's camera is free moving and largely unconcerned with covering anything. Mirroring the free wheeling lifestyles of the characters and the fast pace of the city itself, the camera often floats around the room and captures the action without any apparent purpose or direction in how it is shot. While that may sound critical, it is not. This wanton disregard of convention is what makes Song to Song stand out, even in spite of all of its flaws and absolute avoidance of cohesion.
A divisive and hard-to-crack film, Song to Song is another confusing entry into Terrence Malick's filmography. After his magnum opus, The Tree of Life, this brilliant director has made impeccably divisive film after impeccably divisive film with some praising the visuals and others deriding how little sense it all makes. While these films are undoubtedly highly masturbatory on Malick's part, there is enough artistic merit here to consider it an experimental win. However, as a film, it lacks any sort of cohesion, is sloppily edited, and so horribly written that it (by my count) only mention one character's name. Other than that, I was honestly lost as to who each actor portrayed as they largely just refer to one another as "he" or "she". With the story and characters lazily put together and its themes compelling, but not explored with enough depth beyond Malick's typical religious indulgence, the film's only pure strength is its unique camera work and ability to capture the aesthetic of Austin so well, it practically makes one feel as though they flew there and back in the two hour runtime. Unfortunately, there is so little to hang onto beyond this visual appeal that Song to Song winds up being admirably experimental, but shockingly dull.