The Tree of Life director explores the Austin music scene in his new film Song to Song. It’s not without its problems but it reveals a true artist still at work, writes Caryn James.
By Caryn James
Terrence Malick made a masterpiece, Days of Heaven, nearly 40 years ago, and that film’s outsized shadow has unfairly haunted his career ever since. What could possibly measure up? Today the film remains as eloquent as ever, timeless and purely Malick. A romantic triangle plays out in a drama of love, jealousy, desire and treachery against the visually stunning landscape of an early 20th Century Texas farm, the story shaped by a young girl’s voiceover.
Malick didn’t make another movie for 20 years, then returned with a quickening pace. But in his most recent work, the approach derived from Days of Heaven has curdled. To the Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2016) are poetic essays, full of stunning imagery and philosophical questions in voiceover. But even judged as poetry they are more vapid than effective, full of posing and pouting. To The Wonder could play as spot-on self-parody, as a morose Ben Affleck and his French bride wander through the open spaces of Oklahoma, speaking overblown lines. Knight of Cups is nearly unwatchable, with Christian Bale as a degenerate Hollywood screenwriter who floats though clichéd party scenes and ponders daddy issues.
The new drama, Song to Song, is lesser Malick compared to his finest work, but succeeds in being smart and engaging for at least its first half. In To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, characters vanish under all that puffed-up philosophising. Song to Song tethers itself to reality with another romantic triangle, this time set against the contemporary backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas. Or as contemporary as a film shot five years ago can be. Taking years with his edits is another Malick trademark.
Rooney Mara is the central figure, Faye, a would-be musician. She sleeps with Cook, a record producer played by Michael Fassbender, hoping to further her career. They knowingly use each other, until she falls for Ryan Gosling as BV, a songwriter who is Cook’s protégé at first, but who breaks with him after Cook steals his copyrights. Faye hides her continuing relationship with Cook from her new love, creating a swirl of ethical dilemmas.
The actors make these characters vivid, within a structure that is recognisably Malick’s. Faye describes the strategy in voiceover: “I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.” The film mirrors that approach. It is built on fragments, disconnected moments of time, seen from various characters’ perspectives and with more voiceover than dialogue. There are Faye and Cook in his bedroom, Faye and BV in one of a series of opulent places she housesits (the shifting locations create a sense of a character adrift). Backstage at concerts, Cook stands next to Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine or chats over a glass of wine with Iggy Pop. Eventually, BV questions Faye about her relationship with Cook. She responds with a series of lies. Although Faye realizes that living song to song cannot work forever, the film uses the tactic to good effect, piecing together a cogent story of love and deception.
To the wonder?
Malick’s typical nature imagery, used as interstitial scenes and easily parodied, is replaced here by scenes of music festivals, including SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival. The music turns out to be no more than set decoration, despite a parade of familiar names and faces. We rarely hear more than a few lines of any performance: the Black Lips here, Iggy Pop there. Once, Faye turns up on stage with a guitar but we never hear a lick. We can only guess what kind of music BV writes – quasi-country maybe? Among many, Patti Smith’s is the only one that matters. She plays a version of her down-to-earth self, giving Faye advice and singing My Blakean Year.
Emmanuel Lubezki (known for Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant) has been Malick’s cinematographer since The New World (2005). Here he gives Austin a gleaming look, yet the visuals never become an overwhelming distraction.
The inflated bad-poetry style of weaker Malick films is minimised
Fassbender and Gosling are great fits for the film, each adding the energy and charisma that is so often missing from Malick’s work. Fassbender brings honesty to his character’s transparently evil, self-destructive nature. Gosling is charmingly boyish, and convincing when it turns out BV is not as naive as he first appears.
Mara is another story. She starts out well enough, her hair in a schoolgirl ponytail that disguises Faye’s steely ambition. As the film goes on, Mara (rather than her character) becomes one-note and tiresome. We lose patience with Faye just when we should be empathising with her.
In the second half of Song to Song, Malick expands the circle of characters. Cook takes up with a waitress played by Natalie Portman, who brings a sad elegance to an underwritten role. BV deals, in short episodes, with his family (Linda Emond as his mother and Tom Sturridge as his brother), a new love played by Cate Blanchett, and an ex-girlfriend, played by the musician Lykke Li. Her scenes with Gosling are strong, and include a lively scene in which they dance to Del Shannon’s Runaway.
Responses to the new film at its SXSW premiere recently were mostly vicious
Despite its weaknesses, Song to Song stands as Malick’s best since The Tree of Life, (2011), an eloquent memory piece about family and loss that largely worked. Responses to the new film when it premiered at SXSW recently were mostly vicious, almost annoyed at Malick for no longer being his Days of Heaven self, an unreasonable standard. The only way to judge him is on his own, 21st Century, experimental terms.
Those terms come sharply into focus when you consider that the original title of Song to Song was Weightless, which, Malick said at SXSW, comes from Virginia Woolf. In her novel The Waves, a character wonders how to go on “without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?” Like Malick’s recent work, The Waves is more a poem than a story. Substitute voiceovers for literary monologues and you have an exact model of a Malick film. And like Song to Song, Woolf’s novel raises the open-ended question of whether the fragments of a life can ever coalesce into a whole.
The Waves is not Woolf’s most accessible or popular work, and Song to Song is not likely to be Malick’s. But it reveals a true artist still at work.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.