However you feel about the famously enigmatic Terrence Malick, one thing is safe to say: the reception of his latest films has been far cooler than the kinds of rapturous applause his prior efforts, dating back to Badlands in 1973, have yielded. It’s a fact that makes it almost impossible not to factor the iconic 73 year-old filmmaker himself – and his faltering public opinion – into discussions of his work. Still, as young filmmakers still attempt to recreate the magic of Malick’s early masterpieces decades on, the lyrical, bewitching Song to Song seems to prove that perhaps the only one not wishing for another Days of Heaven is Malick himself.
The conclusion of Malick’s woozy, exuberant trilogy that began with the much darker To the Wonder, and met its middle with Knight of Cups, Song to Song makes its restless home amongst the Austin music scene. It has all the obligatory trappings of Malick’s recent works: contemplative, hushed narration, pretty people flitting around one another, a rapturous moving camera, and yes, lots of belly kisses.
But the first main difference makes itself known with the narrative – the strongest one of the trilogy – which centers on a love triangle of sorts between cocky music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), characterized early on in the film as the kind of guy rich and rock-and-roll enough to throw an annual party for a deceased friend displayed proudly in a milky white urn, BV (Ryan Gosling) a smarmy, unrelentingly charming up-and-coming musician and Faye (Rooney Mara), a local girl with a heavy sense of moral culpability, whose narration anchors much of the feature. But while the pitch sounds perhaps frustratingly similar to works of Malick’s past, it’s the way the narrative continues to pitch outward, and slowly weave itself into a gorgeous and impossible arras that gives Song to Song the unshakable look of mastery.
The film opens in a dust-filled arena, as dozens of men swirl around in a mosh pit, kicking up dust while the angst-filled preamble to a Die Antwoord song creeps along the soundtrack. It’s a surprisingly violent way for a film filled with muslin curtains and surreptitious tea-drinking, but it’s a choice that helps to foreshadow some of Malick’s more dark elements. At its heart, Song to Song is about tragedy (the kind of aching sadness that results from the act of killing love or of it killing you) and acceptance, but it’s Malick’s reverence for sheer beauty and kineticism that keeps Song to Song buoyant even as the film threatens to dip into darkness.
Though the music decidedly takes a backstage to the human drama that Malick creates, it’s an element (along with the presence of some notable musicians) that helps to adds a beating, human heart to the proceedings. Lykke Li, a musician whose penchant for floating fabric and theatricality on-stage makes her a perfect fit for the dreamy landscape, appearing, refreshing and deathly hip, as one of BV’s ex-girlfriends as well as providing two tender love songs to the soundtrack. Then there’s Patti Smith, who may just have the most speaking lines of any of the characters in the film, performing live, hard-edged and exuberant, and then quietly providing some emotional insight to Faye, as Smith reminisces about the passing of her real-life husband. Iggy Pop makes a puzzling cameo, Val Kilmer an even more confounding one, along with many other artists, as Malick creates a bustling world outside of Faye’s emotional solitude.
As our three central characters spin out from each other, new faces enter the fray: Natalie Portman appears as a bottle blonde local named Rhonda who Cook summons at an unassuming restaurant with the charming but depressingly true admission, “I have a condition. I can’t be left alone.” Cate Blanchett appears as a high-powered but deeply lonely widow outfitted in smart stilettos, and Berenice Marlohe flits into the picture as a beguiling Parisian transplant who takes up an unselfish affair with Faye. The most stunning of the additions comes, perhaps unexpectedly, in the form of Holly Hunter, the protective yet vulnerable mother of Portman’s Rhonda who delivers a performance with shockingly high emotional impact despite her minimal screen-time.
Perhaps Song to Song’s biggest difference from the films that precede it is Malick’s willingness to move on from the shoe-gazing contemplations of his lonely male protagonists, to allow Mara’s soul-searching to take center stage. And while the quiet desire for existential understanding that plagues nearly every Malick protagonist is still there, there’s a sense that the philosophical focus has narrowed as the nagging questions move inward. It’s a small distinction that makes Malick’s gaze – as Fassbender breaks out a monkey impression at a beach, as Gosling bathes Mara with the water from a small puddle in the desert, as Portman glares at the street below through the windows of a gleaming penthouse apartment – filled with more verve than we’ve seen in quite a while.
For those parched for a thematic departure or grand shake-up in Malick’s work, Song to Song will offer no oasis. It arguably runs a bit long, and isn’t without its own share of seemingly pointless navel-gazing in its first act. But it is easily the best of his films since The Tree of Life, and a deceptively simple and affecting look at regret, forgiveness and the human condition, told in a way only Malick could. That navel-gazing, by the film’s midway point, gives way to newly vital, and frankly romantic meditations – and the results, if imperfect, feel wholly worthwhile. As Mara chides near the end of film while Gosling plucks idly at an old piano: “It’s a love story. Play it slow.”