Terrence Malick – Song to Song


“Slower. It’s A Love Story.”

Some of you may have just read that quote and ran for the hills. Some of you may have come here hoping Malick has stopped being Malick, read that quote, and have already realized this won’t be the film for you. Or some of you might be like me, where a quote like this makes you even more excited than you already were, especially for a Malick film (I thoroughly enjoyed each movie since Tree of Life, including Tree of Life).

Our opening shot is of Faye (Mara) and Cook (Fassbender) separated by a wall. Divisions are a theme throughout this film and this story very clearly starts with this dynamic between Faye and Cook. She was his receptionist since she had been 16, trying to get her foot in the door of the music world, and Cook is the macho man with all of the contacts, all of the power, and the one to make the decision. The second shot is the water behind a speed boat, showcasing the way it creates a division in the water.

Song to Song feels like the movie Malick has been building towards since Tree of Life. In Knight of Cups, one of the women that Bale’s character interacts with has an ear full of piercings with none of them in. That same thing happens here in the beginning; Faye is at the music festival, expressing to us that she feels that the only way to get in is by knowing the right people, and she exposes to us an ear with piercings but none of them are in. To me, this is expressing vulnerability. Cook defines playing the game, the whole idea of needing to know people to get in, as a dirtying of one’s hands. This isn’t a pretty game to be a part of, but it’s the one that the players have become a slave to regardless. Faye making this decision to play the game is one of vulnerability, wanting to be successful and deciding to conform to the industry.

Knight of Cups brought about a water theme which returns here, and To The Wonder brought about a God theme which returns here. Water (and the color blue) seem to be tied to a lack of freedom. Rhonda (Portman) dives into a pool of water, completely submerging herself in it, while Cook watches from inside a house. A few minutes later, Rhonda comes to a realization that her life is only defined by Cook. He is into these women who do not make their own choices and simply submit to him. The times Cook has sex on screen involve all of the women naked while he remains clothed. When Cook first meets Rhonda, she is working at a restaurant as a waitress while he is a customer. In a matter of moments, the scene ends with Rhonda being the one sitting at the table and Cook standing above her in her own uniform. Rhonda thought she was giving something to Cook. “What part of me do you want? Take what you want.” All she was giving him was power. She ends up making a decision that she can own and define herself by and kills herself. In contrast, the end of the film shows Faye and BV (Gosling) out in nature, walking and wading through very shallow water. There is that slight amount of freedom that is sacrificed for the relationship, but ultimately they have the sun shining down upon them. The sun (and the color red) seem to act as the opposite of water/blue, embodying life, freedom, etc.

God comes up numerous times, specifically in Rhonda’s storyline. Cook tells her to eat something that was “dipped in God”. In that circumstance, it seemed to me more like Cook playing up his own God complex. Moving further, the prostitute(?) with the red hair that Rhonda meets with Cook mentions also being a teacher without a job (paralleling Rhonda’s own situation) and that God must have a plan for her. At the climax of these feelings, Rhonda ends up back in a religious setting, a return to God while dealing with this lack of identity, and it is said that “it is in giving that we receive”. She was giving but she wasn’t receiving.

A less blunt spirituality based topic that is involved in this film is the soul. BV playfully pretends to see Faye’s soul in her mouth and confides his love in her soul to her. Later on, in the club scene, Ryan opens her mouth again. Faye’s voiceover, “I knew I had to tell you. Come clean.” (Referring to the constant cheating with Cook). In this moment, it felt as though her soul was exposed to him, and she knew what it looked like. Or perhaps that her soul wasn’t there at all. Faye remarks on how she never knew she had a soul. The word always embarrassed her. She was always afraid to be herself. Conforming to the hand-dirtying system of sleeping with the guy who has all of the contacts was likely not who she would define as herself, so she wasn’t being herself at the time, or, at least not the way she’d like to be.

When BV first meets Faye at the party, he asks her what her name is and she doesn’t answer. Later in the movie, her name comes out as Faye just once (to accomplish letting the audience know she as 16 when she first started working for Cook) however, none of the other character names are ever used throughout the film. I believe Faye not answering with her name stresses this importance, as if Malick was trying to communicate that every emotion being put on display with this film is something felt by everyone. Names need not apply.

Climbing higher is established as being related to freedom. Faye says in her narration, “I wanted to escape from every tie, every hold. To go up, high, free.” (Excuse the paraphrasing, I saw the film two days ago at the time of writing this). However, it seems like going up higher is more related to success than freedom. At the height of their music industry collaboration (Faye, Cook, and BV) they end up going up in a plane to experience less gravity. The highest they could get. Later when Faye wants to stop seeing Cook, and consequently her career, because she feels wrong about it, the very next shot is her descending downwards on an elevator.

Even if Faye’s decisions were sometimes done as a slave to the system, she still made decisions for herself, a sort of freedom that BV’s ex-girlfriend did not exhibit. She was willing to sacrifice what her life was in the name of lifting BV up, but BV was attracted to someone else wanting to be lifted up. A relationship where they’d lift each other up. What he says about Cook but can easily be translated to Faye, “I didn’t think anything could break us apart. Thought we’d lift each other up.”

BV’s watch makes a few appearances as the front-and-center of the scene, displaying some sort of desire for time. Faye says at one point, “I wish this could last forever,” and at the end also says over a shot displaying the watch, “I won’t stop loving you. I don’t think I can.” The title of the film is name-dropped as living life moment to moment, “Song to song. Kiss to kiss.” This also encompasses the aspect of time and how we just go from one thing to the next.

Faye recites a portion of a poem from William Blake called The Divine Image. “Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace. And all must love the human form.” She later elaborates on herself, “Mercy was a word…I never thought I needed it, or not as much as other people do.” The poem is expressing how mercy is an integral part of the human form, and just being human involves this mercy. She was denying this aspect of herself previously, and after all, she was having trouble defining herself.

When Faye’s father asks Faye about whether or not she can trust BV, she doesn’t answer. (Which seems to be something she does a lot, no answer to her name, lots of lying throughout the film, and when BV asks if she loves him she states that she doesn’t like to say it). BV is shown as one who can be trusted, which to me could mean a few different things. 1) Cook is on her mind when the question is asked, and he cannot be trusted. 2) Just like when she told BV that she doesn’t like to say that she loves him out loud, she doesn’t want to say that he is trustworthy out loud and commit herself to those feelings. Or 3) She can trust him, but she knows that due to her cheating that BV cannot trust her, and the guilt is taking over. Malick manages to say so much by saying so little which I am continually impressed by.

In Knight of Cups, it felt very much like there was as little exposition as possible. A lot was left up to the audience to piece together and figure out and connect. I went into Song to Song expecting something similar and would find myself noting things that would a few moments later be confirmed through exposition, a voiceover declaring the things I was piecing together. For instance, there is a part where Cook says to Faye about BV, “All his life he tried to get free, he doesn’t know how.” I immediately noted to myself that this is talking about Faye as well, and she doesn’t know how to get free but wants to be. A few moments later, Faye’s voiceover says, “I wanted to be free like he was.” It is because of this that I believe Malick is finally hitting his stride, balancing the insane amount of themes and symbolism to be pieced together with exposition to keep the flow moving. A face-value aspect and below the surface aspect.

I read online (I forget where at this time, I’ll edit it in when I hunt it down, I’m just about to go out right now) that the first cut of this film was over 8 hours long, which then had to be trimmed down to a traditional film length. This seems very similar to how a novel is created, and I believe Malick is someone who has been able to use internal narration brilliantly within modern filmmaking. His movies, as a result, feel like a form of cross-medium, bringing in many aspects of literature. It was mentioned in that same article that there was so much footage that each character had a whole storyline and backstory that could have been shown. If I had to choose one negative thing about this film, it would be that I felt Cook does the least growth as a character. For most of the movie, he is just the all-powerful god-guy, but his response to Rhonda’s death to me shows that he struggles just as much with freedom. That unfortunately never gets shown, and I believe there is footage that could show it!

This was a film that captured raw emotion. Love. Dynamics of freedom and power. There were stellar performances all around, from both cast and crew. I apologize for how scattered this is right now, there is so much more to analyze and discuss regarding this movie (for example, a comment on talent versus playing the game. BV has the talent but doesn’t get anywhere because he doesn’t play the game. Faye plays the game but isn’t shown playing any music until very far into the movie), I’m looking forward to eventually watching it a second time. I started with a quote from the film, so let’s end with one. One that embodies the identity crises communicated throughout, and one that Malick clearly follows, and one that I hope to follow. “Do something of value. Make the money, not the money make you.”