I highly think we haven’t been fair to 2010’s Terrence Malick in some ways. Since his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece The Tree of Life, he’s wasted no time suddenly changing his method of filmmaking and focusing more on essayistic than narratively-driven pictures. Given how Malick’s films have been famously “made in the editing room” (infamously in some facets such as Adrien Brody’s involvement with The Thin Red Line), it’s less a surprise that he got to this point in his filmmaking than it is that it took him this long in a nearly 50-year career to reach that point. And it must be stated that the subject matter of this moment in this particular span of his career is nowhere near as interesting as the material he worked with back in the first half of his career. He’s gone from philosophically dense landscape explorations about man’s relation with nature, inner or environmental, to naval-gazing self-reflections about his status in life where he casts Ben Affleck or Christian Bale as himself (I’m not sure who qualifies for his surrogate in the subject of this review). He’s also made Voyage of Time in the middle of this phase, which is essentially just an outtake out of The Tree of Life so I’m not sure I’d call it as invested as the rest of his feature works.
BUT. He’s challenging cinematic norms in positively every other way. Aesthetical decisions helped out by having his usual suspects of brilliant veterans in the visual department: Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki aka the best cinematographer alive, production designer Jack Fisk (one would argue that there isn’t much to “design” in this film and that’s not untrue, but there’s still a necessity to spy the sort of environments – urban and natural – based on the demands of the scene and Fisk’s awareness of how they will be presented with Malick and Chivo’s lens), and as usual a revolving door of editors all of which have worked with Malick and have some idea of what he wants them to focus on. Those editors being Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, and Keith Fraase. Altogether, these films are formalist catnip.
And to be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, Song to Song – our subject here – is not as visually or structurally interesting as its predecessor Knight of Cups. Knight of Cups had a clear step-by-step focus and its decisions on sweeping through concrete terrains in GoPro cameras feels much more revelatory than the still-impressively gorgeous but all too familiar concert footage and leisure tour that is in Song to Song. But Song to Song also a clearer throughway in plot – it’s still abstract but so much less abstract than Knight of Cups (if anything, I’d probably show StS to friends before I showed KoC) – where the chronology doesn’t take effort to parse out and we can recognize an emotional and philosophical arc within our main four subjects.
Those subjects being musicians BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), all based in the city of Austin, Texas. Song to Song dances around these characters and how their relationships between each other tangle: The artistically driven BV is dating the more underground Faye and working for the sociopathic hedonistic Cook, but Faye is also having a secret affair with Cook in the middle of her internal identity crisis, and sometime into that Cook gets involved with the smitten Rhonda to the point of marriage and traps her into the shallow domesticity while not showing any signs of slowing down his debauchery in spite of her awareness. These strands begin to snap and expand in a naturalistic way probably based on something Malick does here that I can’t recall him ever doing elsewhere: he lets his actors sort of write the movie.
I mean, he’s still the credited writer and obviously shaped more of the narrative in post than in filming – loose as the editing might feel – and actors were obviously cut (including, to my disappointment, Trevante Rhodes) but the real soul of Song to Song is in how the actors are allowed to inhabit these characters, fill them up with their own internal developments, and Malick and the camera just observe. Not just observe, but Malick seems to augment the idea through his editing that this is a character-inspired emotional journey rather than try to reframe it as a visually driven tale until the final few minutes. I’d honestly say Mara’s performance as Faye, possibly my favorite of her whole career, is strengthened by the decisions the editors take in sharply navigating through her emotional states than otherwise. And while it might sound like an insult, I absolutely do not mean for it to be so when the main cast could feel like they’ve been playing the same personality they’re providing their whole career: Gosling’s quiet fear of loneliness, Fassbender’s second-nature shitheel, Cate Blanchett’s bored entrapment in an unfulfilling relationship, and so on. And in turn, Malick gets to take those and arrange them into distanced looks into disconnection from society and how these characters deal with it, without losing sight of the fact that they’re humans inhabiting this film. Malick’s just not handling that, he knows his cast has got it.
And of course this praise isn’t precisely restricted to just the lead actors, but the revolving door of musicians who make appearances and simply espouse their philosophy on life without the slightest amount of restraint: Johnny Rotten acting like an overgrown teenager talking about doing whatever the fuck he wants to, Big Freedia’s (who this movie introduced me to) bouncy hangout manner, or most heartbreakingly Patti Smith reciting to Faye her short-lived time with the love of her life, the late Fred Smith (unnamed but very obviously the subject of her monologue if you know Patti or the MC5s well). There’s still plenty of voiceover work by several of the leads, but none of them reach the sort of pained potency as Patti’s.
Malick is close to cinema verité in his encouragement of these performers to just exist in the Austin neighborhoods and cityscape. Something that in turn leads to easing the audience, if you’re willing to meet it halfway, into sinking into the experience of swimming around these relationships and how they collide, separate, and collide again. But then it’s still a stylized Malick film. I didn’t say it wasn’t, y’all, I said it was just a bit measured about it. Malick still wants to give Austin the same treatment he gave L.A. in Knight of Cups, with Chivo framing the interiors of Cook’s glass and chrome house like an inhuman prison, the clubs Cook brings BV to as a lurid Hades, or the sort of house he buys Rhonda’s mother as an empty shell. And the concert scenes are full of excitement and wild frenzy that frontloading them seems a smart choice to prime me enough for the length of the movie to follow (it is not a movie that outstays its welcome by me, but it gets pretty close).
Anyway, Song to Song is another of Malick’s interesting experiments – potentially the last one – but this time the experiment is more focused on how can one cohere a story with the sort of free reign to actors, rather than how can one cohere a philosophical treatise like with Knight of Cups. And I don’t think it’s entirely a success for in the end Song to Song seems entirely like its title suggests – a series of isolated moments moving into moments that happen to map well enough to give drive to the film, but not a story. It’s been almost a year since I first saw it and still I have much to chew on within the film, but it is nevertheless the sort of challenge I love diving in and that makes cinema more and more full of surprises everyday.