At this point, I’m starting to think that the form of the last few Terrence Malick films is more interesting than its content. So cryptic were his shooting methods that most actors who appeared in the new film, Song to Song, and 2015’s Knight of Cups weren’t really sure which movie they were in — in some cases, it was even unclear whether there were two movies being made or not.
Malick hires extremely famous actors and then essentially lets them improvise around relationships and pages of monologue rather than a story. The story (if you can call it that — I think it’s more accurately described as an arc) comes later, as Malick shapes and juxtaposes the (presumably endless) footage he has gathered into a whole.
It’s undeniably an ass-backwards way of doing things, at least as far as convention is concerned, but it’s also unique on the landscape. Only Malick is employing A-list movie stars and confusing the hell out of them in that way, to the point where Christian Bale (who starred in Knight of Cups) was actually unsure of what the movie was about and what he did in it.
Knight of Cups and Song to Song wind up being pretty similar filmic experiences in the end, wispy free-associative tone poems about very rich people who are very sad in their very nice houses — even if Song to Song is a little more structured in its chaos.
BV (Ryan Gosling) is an up-and-coming musician who does very little music. Faye (Rooney Mara) is a musician, too (she jams with Patti Smith at least once), though she seems to be in a personal freefall revolving around her boss and sometime-lover Cook (Michael Fassbender), a powerful music mogul who uses his power to manipulate both BV and Faye into a bizarre love triangle that expands over the Austin music scene.
There’s not much plot to speak of here, and a lot of this is just surface-level speculating by me, as Malick doggedly avoids anything resembling a traditional narrative structure. Cook eventually takes up with a diner waitress (Natalie Portman) who brings the film into more traditional waters, but the fact remains that the majority of Song to Song is the actors pacing around beautifully minimalistic apartments and/or public structures, embracing and then backing off while reciting poetic abstractions in voiceover.
You certainly can’t fault Malick’s ambition — he’s trying to make a movie that encapsulates the whole of human experience, from love to death to grief to regret, often simultaneously. But for a movie so preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of humanity, Song to Song mostly feels cold and alienating, a reasonable facsimile of humanity covered up with the most aesthetically pleasing wrapping possible.
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make this existential malaise beautiful — so beautiful, in fact, that it sometimes verges on pure lifestyle catalogue porn with some (impeccably dressed) sad sacks wandering in and out of the frame. Like Knight of Cups, Song to Song presents a human experience in the most unrelatable manner possible, showing us privileged white people who are so bored in their opulence that they literally cannot sit still for a second.
There’s a rich tradition of that in cinema, of course. In a way, Song to Song feels like Malick riffing on Antonioni in his most ennui-obsessed period, but even Antonioni was able to do that with a certain wit that Malick is almost entirely lacking. The film’s most profound moments are only a sliver away from its silliest and most parodic — in a few cases, they’re nigh indistinguishable.
And yet, for all of the film’s heavy-handedness and navel-gazing (in some ways literal; Malick certainly seems to be taken with Mara’s stomach — it gets 10x the close-ups that Val Kilmer does as a batshit insane rockstar who destroys an amp with a chainsaw in one of the film’s more delightful non-sequiturs), it also contains some real beauty and emotion. Even though the dialogue is made obtuse on purpose (some conversations fade in and out on purpose), Malick can certainly wield some powerful imagery, like a scene where Gosling visits his comatose father or another where Holly Hunter receives the worst news imaginable — off-screen, of course.
Song to Song’s rock festival setting gives it a little more juice than Knight of Cups, paving the way for cameos by Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Big Freedia, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lykke Li (though Smith and Li have something closer to supporting roles, whatever that means in this particular case) and opening it up for some more dynamic backdrops. I would argue that Song to Song is instantly more likeable as a film because it features a little more of the real world creeping in: real people who seem to work jobs and stand around in homes that seem lived-in.
In spite of this, though, Malick finds more than enough time to film people jumping into pools fully clothed, frolicking around with naked young women, walking along beaches and kneeling in some wheat. It’s bizarre that Malick has managed to one-up his own clichés (which, might I remind you, used to be mostly limited to the billowing fields of wheat) in the space of three films, but it also suggests that the last two films can essentially be taken as a diptych, each part indissociable from the other in its themes and aesthetics.
I find it difficult to properly quantify Song to Song’s strengths against its flaws. It’s certainly a unique experience that has no comparison (except, of course, Knight of Cups and To the Wonder). Certainly, its eschewing of all conventional narrative tricks isn’t to everyone’s liking — while I’d concede that it represents Song to Song’s greatest strength, it also feeds into its most superficial and unsatisfying elements. Ultimately, I found it unsatisfying but also paradoxically extremely rewarding in a way that I have trouble truly wrapping my head around. If the base line of my job here is to tell you whether you should see this movie or not, I’m afraid it’s not going to be that easy. I suspect the only person Song to Song can truly “work for” in the most simple sense is Malick himself, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in here to surprise the rest of us. ■
Song to Song opens in theatres on Friday, April 7. Watch the trailer here: