'Song to Song': Malick On Repeat
Terrence Malick retreads familiar motifs and themes in yet another nebulous navel-gazer.
There’s something to be said for audiences meeting a filmmaker halfway. Some movies are unconventionally slow-paced, or challenging, or abstract, their finer qualities only unveiled to those with the willingness to fully submit themselves to the director’s vision. Terrence Malick achieved legendary status with visually breathtaking, ethereal films like Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005), which were far from Hollywood crowd-pleasers but nonetheless spoke to universal truths with an unparalleled cinematic eloquence.
Following his last and perhaps greatest work, 2011’s The Tree of Life, his pictures have grown so hard to sit with and digest that even longtime devotees have expressed frustration with the beloved filmmaker. Some are still willing to meet Malick halfway, but is he willing to do the same?
Malick’s latest, Song to Song, seems to suggest he has no such intention. Like To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015) before it, Song to Song is a nebulous, flowing, labyrinthine tale of existential woe, this time set in the Austin, Texas music scene. The narrative is chronologically fragmented, following musicians BV and Faye (Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara, respectively) and the jerk producer, Cook (Michael Fassbender) as they play romantic pinball, bouncing off of each other and various other guest lovers as they puzzle over their place in the universe via voiceover narration. It’s a formula that, despite its distance from convention, has grown stale within the context of Malick’s oeuvre.
The three leads, gorgeous as they are, make for ideal navel-gazers. This is because their inner monologues -- which consist of seemingly every conceivable variation on “Who am I? Why am I?” -- feel so hollow and repetitive that, if the actors weren’t the prettiest people on earth, the risk of lulling the audience to sleep would be too high. The non-narration dialogue feels natural and improvised, but ultimately says and reveals very little of consequence about the characters, other than some rudimentary narrative developments. “Did you have sex with him? Why didn’t you tell me?”
BV and Faye are starving songwriters, but really, they’re puppets whose primary function is to spout Malick’s signature cosmic confessions. Cook is more compelling than his songster counterparts, a balling A-lister drowning in champagne and excess and who, of course, suffers from an unstoppable self-destructive streak. It’s a role essentially adjacent to Christian Bale’s protagonist in Knight of Cups, but Fassbender, with his imposing physical presence and manic eyes, gives the movie’s most enduring performance.
It will come to the surprise of few that Song to Song’s greatest boon is the incomparable Emmanuel Lubezki, whose immense imagery makes even the most everyday locale look larger than life, like a later scene that sees a tertiary character (Holly Hunter) crumple to her knees in a Costco parking lot. It’s as mundane an environment as you’ll find, but through Lubezki’s eye, she may as well be screaming to the heavens at the summit of Mount Everest.
Any appreciator of cinematography would likely be quite happy to spend two hours drinking in Lubezki’s imagery, but here, it’s constantly undercut by Malick, who constantly zips between loosely related and completely unrelated images that, beautiful as they are, don’t elevate in the way the director arranges them. It feels like a random shuffle: BV and Faye flirt like children at a party; Faye and Cook roll around on the floor of his apartment; an empty residential street; a mountain; Iggy Pop performing in front of a sea of humanity (really). I’m sure Malick and his editors had a focused intent when sequencing the imagery, but nothing so specific registers on the big screen. What it amounts to is an empty exercise in free association that becomes unbearably dull as the film wears on.
Outside of the three main love-trianglers, some other famous faces step into the fold in the movie’s second half as rebounds -- Cate Blanchett is Gosling’s, a broken divorcee; Natalie Portman, a small-town diner waitress, is paired with Fassbender’s sleazy impresario; French actress Bérénice Marlohe shares a tender fling with Mara. Each actor’s heartache looks and feels real (what becomes of Portman’s character is particularly moving), though it’s hard to latch onto them in any significant way amid the narrative chaos, which constantly has you asking what the hell is going on rather than slowing down and connecting with the actors’ work.
Malick’s ambition is, even in failure, something to marvel at. There’s no director even remotely like him, and Song to Song does harbor some provocative ideas about abandonment, femininity, brotherhood, and sex as an emotional buoy. His style flows like a river, and while most will drown in his borderline nonsensical storytelling, some Malick believers will again be swept away by the cinematic grandeur of it all.