Song to Song **** / *****
Directed by: Terrence Malick.
Written by: Terrence Malick.
Starring: Rooney Mara (Faye), Ryan Gosling (BV), Michael Fassbender (Cook), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), Cate Blanchett (Amanda), Lykke Li (Lykke), Bérénice Marlohe (Zoey), Holly Hunter (Miranda), Patti Smith (Herself), Val Kilmer (Duane).
With Song to Song, Terrence Malick has made the best of his loosely related trilogy of films also including To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. While the films all pale in comparison to the five films – Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life – but are still films that only Malick could have, or would have, made. I know and sympathize with the directors fans who would rather him do something more narratively based again – with those say that he has now completely devolved into self-parody and navel gazing. No, I take that back – fuck those people. The more I see of this style from Malick, the more I like it – perhaps Song to Song isn’t really the best of the three most recent films (not counting his doc, Voyage of Time) but that because I’ve seen the last two films, I better knew what to expect this time, and how to watch the film. The film is far from perfect – it is flawed to be sure, and repetitive, but it is an honest attempt by a great artist of reaching out and interacting with the world around him – one he doesn’t fully understand. I too, would love to see Malick make something as brilliant – as perfect – as Badlands or The Thin Red Line again. But I also don’t mind when Malick does something like this.
Song to Song takes place in Austin, in the middle of the music scene. No, the music scene in Austin is nothing like this – and I feel confident in saying this, even though I have never been to Austin, or been a part of any scene. It doesn’t matter. The main character is Fate (Rooney Mara) – a natural for Malick’s style (t’s easily the best performance in these trilogy of films) – a singer/songwriter of some kind (he never learn what kind) – who falls for another musician – BV (Ryan Gosling), who has started to work with her boss, Cook (Michael Fassbender) – a music executive who seduces everyone, and destroys almost as many. The three of them become close – BV never knowing that Faye and Cook used to be something more than they are now. Eventually, things fall apart between all them as they often do. There are other lovers – Cook marries Rhonda (Natalie Portman) – then degrades and destroys her. BV dates the more high string Amanda (Cate Blanchatt). Faye dates a French artist, Zooey (Berenice Marlohe). The narrative brings all of these people low – both figuratively and literally (characters literally spend a lot of time lying down on floors in the second half of the film – not as upright in the beginning). The film is told in what has become known as Malick’s signature style in these films – a lot of repeated imagery, women seen from behind, the world seen over the shoulder of broad shouldered men, twilight hour beauty bumping into the cityscapes. Whispered voiceovers, and half heard conversation. There are fractured family connections and a rather old fashioned, Christian point-of-view, which doesn’t necessarily judge the characters for their digressions, but does show how it leads them down some dark paths.
If I like Song to Song more than To the Wonder or Knight of Cups, I think it’s because the characters came more into focus for me in this one. Ben Affleck is a (deliberate) blank in To the Wonder, which is really more the story of his wife (Olga Kurylenko, brilliant in that film) who is destroyed by her marriage to him. Christian Bale plays an empty shell of a person in Knight of Cups, who drifts from one meaningless relationship to the next – it’s fascinating, but it’s hard to care for him. Here, you do care for, at least, the two main female characters. Portman has less screen time than Mara, but she delivers one of the best performances of her career as Rhonda – the teacher/waitress with a big smile and light in her eyes when she meets Cook – and is bowled over by him. He almost cannot take her joy, and destroys her – something Portman makes clear by the end. Mara is the main character, and one hopes she’ll work with Malick again – he knows precisely what to do with her strange onscreen quality. This is another performance where she makes the case that she’s one of the best currently working – her Faye is a confused, searching mess – drifting from one thing to the next, not as an empty shell, like Knight of Cups, but in a legitimate search. Fassbender is also a Malick natural – he was told to base his character on Satan, and he is able to show that through his physical premise. I’m not sure I want to see a return Malick engagement for Gosling – who skill is often verbal, which isn’t really of use to Malick, although it is fun to imagine this movie is what his La Land character was up between the time Stone left him and he opened his club in L.A..
No, this movie isn’t perfect. Not every interlude works – in this case, I really don’t know what purpose Blanchett’s character serves. She is, as always, gorgeous, and Malick knows how to shoot her at her best, but that whole subplot dragged. As with the previous two films as well, the film grows repetitive – showing us things two or three (or four or five) times we didn’t need to see as often.