Terrence Malick was once considered the JD Salinger of cinema. After his debut, Badlands(1974), catapulted him into the directorial spotlight, he made one more film in the ‘70s, the dexterous Days of Heaven(1978). In only two films, Malick established himself as a distinct, visual poet with a knack for nuanced and ethereal storytelling. Roger Ebert said this of the latter film: “This is a movie made by a man who knew how something felt, and found a way to evoke it in us.”
Indeed, the surreal feel of the two films — whether it was Malick’s visuals of the American West or his adroitness of capturing nature in its most banal moments — would personify his visual style in decades to come that would only be expanded upon once the CGI-era in filmmaking emerged. Malick also introduced to the world a beautifully chaotic, non-linear style of narrative storytelling characterized by imaginative and profound voiceovers.
After Days of Heaven, Malick became an enigma and a recluse for the next 20 years, evading Hollywood and virtually all press. Malick wrote and directed The Thin Red Line in 1998, which received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. It was Malick’s welcome comeback to the medium of cinema. However, the auteur would have another seven-year dry spell until The New World in 2005. The film was lauded for its now expected innovative visuals and poetic narration but criticized for its aimlessness and lengthiness.
Malick would not make his next film until an inexplicable and personally unprecedented period of productivity during the third act of his career beginning in 2011. Malick released The Tree of Life in 2011, To the Wonder in 2012, Knight of Cups in 2015, and Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey in 2016. These four films magnified Malick’s visual and narrative poetic storytelling aptitude. The visual poetry intentionally overshadowed the narrative storytelling. They were far more experimental, experiential, and existential than his previous, albeit small body of work.
Song to Song furthers Malick’s newfound, cerebral, existential filmmaking streak while focusing more on creating a cogent narrative molded in a more concrete story to appease a wider audience than his previous four films. Austin-based wandering musicians Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) meet through a mutual friend, Cook, a record mogul, and instantly fall in love when Cook welcomes them into his lavish lifestyle of traveling and luxury, sparking a romantic and professional love triangle. Their relationship is put to the test when Cook (Michael Fassbender), who is a slight variation of the greedy, sketchy music producer archetype, takes them on an intoxicating upwards (and downwards) spiral to success and the consequences that come with it in the music industry.
Spoilers Ahead: The Austin music scene serves as an allegory for the impossible standards set by society for the youth of today’s generation to succeed and the pressure that accompanies it. The two major themes in the film are love and betrayal, which Malick has explored throughout the entirety of his nine-film filmography. Cook is an id-driven womanizer, using his power and money to bend both women and men to his will both sexually and emotionally. He entices young aspiring musicians and makes grand, often empty, misleading promises, much like he did with Faye, whose inner-narration describes herself as an aimless, self-deprecating failure to live up to her father’s standards.
Faye embraces pain to feel alive and to break a barrier of numbness that this life has given her. She never allowed herself happiness by accepting love; she avoided the path more often taken in life, that of a secure job, family, and conforming to society’s conventions. Similarly, BJ is entranced by Cook’s grandeur. He gives him a record label and money, but eventually the two separate professionally after Cook begins to take copyright credit for BV’s original songs and it is revealed that he lured Faye into one of his intense sexual exploits, to which she could not seem to resist. BV cannot forgive Faye, and they break up, sending Faye on another aimless path of self-destruction and -discovery.
Cook is the tortured villain in this story. He has a conscience, but no regard for the wellbeing of others. He lures another person into his web of seduction, Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a working class waitress, by marrying her, enticing her with all of his material possessions and buying a house for her financially struggling mother. Rhonda gets sucked into his perverse fantasies of power and control, and eventually kills herself, an act that pushes Cook to a final realization of who he is, and he cannot accept what he sees. Guilt, regret, and shame have consumed him. “I used to love everyone. Now I have love for nobody. You took that away from me,” confesses Rhonda during one of her final voiceovers.
For brief moments, Faye finds a new lover, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), and BV juggles an old girlfriend, Lykke (played by Swedish musician Lykke Li as a variation of herself in her impressive acting debut, who also has two songs on the soundtrack, I Know Places and Love Out of Lust, which add significant emotional depth to the film) and an older woman, Amanda (Cate Blanchett), who brings structure but not happiness into his life. One can expect a plethora of subtle musician cameos ranging from Anthony Kiedis, to The Black Lips, to Iggy Pop, to Patti Smith. Smith is an integral character who takes Faye under her musician wing and uses her wise life experience to breathe life into Faye’s fading existence.
Ultimately, Faye and BV find their way back to each other. The most lasting message, if one were to take any out of Song to Song, would be that of forgiveness. Faye and BV forgive each other and overcome the sometimes dog-eat-dog, cutthroat music world without getting chewed up and spit out. Sure, they have lasting scars, but they accept each other’s flaws. If a person is hurt badly enough, forgiveness can be one of the hardest yet emotionally rewarding acts of human grace; it is intrinsically healing.
Malick does a fantastic job, as always, of capturing the rhythms and canvases of nature. He encapsulates each character’s inner, whispery dialogue as a means to further character development in perhaps his most eloquent and effective fashion yet. With an A-list cast set against the Austin music scene, Malick has finally found a palatable balance between his visual and narrative poeticism.