Terrence Malick’s new film, “Song to Song,” is neither a masterpiece nor the disaster many of his dissenters claim it to be. It’s more of the same, though often far greater than merely that and is, at the very least, a consistently stunning film. After his cinematic masters’ thesis, “The Tree of Life,” in which Malick traveled through the beginning and end of time, through the cosmos and into the home of a Texas family, Malick has now wrapped up a trilogy of intimate, highly experimental dramas set in modern day.
Malick’s subsequent “To The Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” were met with faint praise and a mostly universally dismissive response. I understand the negativity aimed at those films, which forego a straight forward narrative in favor of an approach that is distancing and pretentious. I could care less about those criticisms, however, as Malick is doing something far more interesting and personal in this trio of small, humanistic dramas. Featuring intuitive, of-the-moment performances, highly stylistic (and gorgeous) cinematography and playing with the notion of time, masculinity and existentialism, Malick’s three works demonstrate a creative restlessness and a playful approach to the cinematic form. You feel these movies more than simply watch them.
If you allow yourself to surrender to his leisurely pace and just go with the narrative hop scotches through timelines, Malick’s films do eventually reveal their core themes and reward the patient filmgoer with more than just attractive scenery and pretty actors.
“Song to Song” stars Ryan Gosling as BV, a promising songwriter whose alliance with a slick producer named Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) tests his focus and personal life. Cook seduces BV’s musician girlfriend, Faye (played by Rooney Mara), who keeps the affair a secret. Although the film is set in the Austin Texas music scene, the emphasis isn’t on the stage performances but on the emotional turmoil backstage. Malick’s film is wall-to-wall with eclectic, often beautiful music choices that compliment the extraordinary camera work by his brilliant DP, Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki (who is arguably Malick’s most valuable artistic collaborator). The imagery ranges from painterly and poetic to spontaneous catches of fly-on-the-wall observations. Malick and Lubezi are once again in synch with their ability to capture indescribable beauty and open, instinctual work from the all-star cast.
It could be said that the leads are visibly finding their way through each scene, as though they were still undergoing acting exercises in theater class. There is truth to this, as the actors sometimes appear in the process of figuring out their characters in the midst of filmed improvisations. Yet, as in his prior works, it allows for an emotional nakedness in the work that you won’t see anywhere else. Gosling, for example, is so much more transparent, real and present here than in mainstream sludge like “Gangster Squad.” Ditto Fassbender, who excels at portraying a man whose joy for extravagance and life’s carnal pleasures renders him a human black hole.
Mara’s character has secrets that only the audience knows in full, while the characters she encounters are intrigued but finally baffled by her. She’s not the most sympathetic of Malick’s female leads but I found her troubled journey to be endearing. Far better is Natalie Portman, in a sexy, deeply felt turn as a waitress that Cook plucks into his nihilistic lifestyle. Linda Emond stands out as BV’s Mother and Cate Blanchett is good in yet another underdeveloped role (she is as dazzling and frustratingly out of focus in this as she is in “Knight of Cups”)
There’s so much here that flies by, I wish Malick had eased up on the exploratory editing and allowed for more scenes to run their course and not emerge as quick throwaways. The end credits reveal that, while Patti Smith and Iggy Pop effectively play themselves, Val Kilmer was actually playing a character. Considering how Kilmer is briefly seen cutting his hair and taking a chainsaw to a speaker while in concert, we clearly should have spent more time with him.
Of Malick’s post-“Tree of Life” trilogy, I prefer the “8 and a Half” companion “Knight of Cups” the most, even as its final scenes felt more like a random fade-out than a proper conclusion. “Song to Song,” on the other hand, loses its grips somewhat at the mid-point but triumphantly finds its way in the concluding scenes, which are powerful and swoon-worthy.
The onslaught of scenes with editing interjections and undeclared dramatic asides can be challenging but Malick’s plot is as clear as his commentary on the emptiness of living for fleeting moments of pleasure. This is a love story about two artists who lose their moral compass and strive to get it back. “Song to Song” is imperfect but lovely and revealing. Most love stories make falling in love and finding success look easy; this one examines how pain sobers us up and creating art allows us to climb out of the traps we sometimes stumble into.
Three and a Half Stars