Cast: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe
Director: Terrence Malick
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In terms of the evolving career of auteurs, very few filmmakers have seen such a wide gap of opinion between the old and the new as Terrence Malick. Of course, there's always Jean Luc Godard, but even his old age experiments have the hipness of high-art to fall back on. Malick, however, swings for the fences in a different way; one which is certainly unhip and encouraging of self-parody. His latest long-form, free-associative concoction, Song to Song, follows in the footsteps of his last two features, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, in presenting Malick as someone entirely in his own lane. If To The Wonder was about his failed marriage funneled through star Ben Affleck's wooden gaze and Knight of Cups his ode to the hedonistic party days as a L.A. screenwriter, then Song to Song must inevitably concern his legacy as an Austin-based musician, right?
In all seriousness, this is the first in Malick's post-Tree of Life trilogy that doesn't seem as intensely interested in autobiography. Whereas his last three features were personal collages and in many ways, works of extreme egoism, Song to Song finds the suddenly prolific filmmaker disappearing (if that's even possible) more by shying away from obvious autobiographical connections. Sure, there are estranged brothers, dying fathers, and failed paternal figures on the periphery here, but on the whole, the film seems intent on doubling down on the more docudrama aesthetic found throughout Knight of Cups. This means more GoPro, more vignettes where the camera snakes in and out of scenes, more overlapping dialogue, and more of this idea involving catching details around the characters rather than focusing on the actual characters themselves.
Taking place in and around the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Song to Song centers on a love triangle of sorts, with aspiring musician Faye (Rooney Mara) gallivanting with slimy producer, Cook (Michael Fassbinder) while falling for fellow songwriter, BV (Ryan Gosling). Of course, other characters (as well as real-life performers like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop) filter in and out of the proceedings, and gather enough goodwill to fill only a snippet of screen time. From the opening moments, where a throng of festival-goers thrash around in a mosh pit in arty slow-mo, it's clear Malick has little interest in this milieu or even music in general. Instead, the setting is simply used as a backdrop for Faye's interpersonal journey. This thread; of focusing primarily on a female character's romantic and professional life, is startling in light of Malick's filmography, marking a shift for a director who largely has been concerned with male ennui. Women in Malick films are often visualized as manic pixie dream girls, angelic mothers, or especially in the case of Knight of Cups, scantily-clad eye candy for dispirited men to be entertained by and then discarded. There is a continuation of this last bit whenever Fassbinder is onscreen as the frothing music producer, who seems to be an analog for Christian Bale's character from Cups, but without the "woe is me" navel-gazing. Acting as a kind of "Devil" avatar (Malick is never shy with his biblical allusions), Fassbinder's snake-like villain is mainly on hand to tempt and seduce Mara's doubting Thomas while also acting as a distraction to Gosling's down on his luck musician.
Structured as a loosely connected series of moments and tableau (shot by the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki) in which the camera darts restlessly away from anything even resembling a traditional movie scene, Song to Song will continue to frustrate those hoping Malick will get back to the narrative coherency of Badlands or even, to a lesser extent, the cosmic grandness of The Tree of Life. Instead, he has made an intimate film which nonetheless feels like it's getting at something larger, if only perhaps because the camera is constantly swooping. Eventually, Faye and BV drift apart and other possible romantic foils enter; a French artist, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe) who Faye is drawn to, and an older woman, Amanda (Cate Blanchett) who strikes up a chemistry with BV at a lavish party. All the while, Cook hovers over the proceedings like a deranged puppet master, even as he spirals out into other directions; like getting involved with a suburban waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman), before hitting something that looks like rock bottom.
Ultimately, there's something naively thrilling about Malick's way of making movies. No matter how fragmented or narratively sparse, there's always this feeling of him chasing moments, of trying to attain something ephemeral. Sometimes he achieves this kind of transcendence. Sometimes he doesn't. Oftentimes, it only happens once or twice over the course of an entire run time, but those moments, when they do land, are special and uniquely Malick. More than anything, Song to Song captures the emotional tenor of obsession, longing, infatuation, and self-doubt involving your romantic partner not being as fully invested as you are. The film accomplishes this not through plot points or character arcs, but through recollections, memories, and sensory dreamlike imagery of what life could look like; leaving us spinning, exhausted, and choking on the fumes of the possibility of yet another elevated moment.