“I wanted to be free the way he was.”
Nothing ever seems to last in Terrence Malick’s world. Happiness is a fleeting sensation, and love doesn’t even last that long. Recently in an interview with Richard Linklater, the auteur commented on favoring spontaneity over continuity: “That doesn’t exist… continuity.” The auteur sees any semblance of a plot as theater and wants the distinction between theater and film to be made clear. Life, as he presents it, is lived a second at a time and each second’s passing is its own nadir.
Terrence Malick has been operating at a prolific rate as of late, releasing four films into theaters since 2011’s Tree of Life. Granted, some of this projects have been of varying quality, but having Malick work again is not to be left unappreciated. Knight of Cups was a ponderous experiment of sorts–as was To the Wonder–but with Song to Song, the writer-director appears to have created a more fully formed film than either of those past works. Emmanuel Lubezki’s wandering camera still makes its presence known, thankfully with a hint of a story to go along with it.
Faye (Rooney Mara) lost any sense of love years ago and resorts to violent sex “just to feel something.” Her trysts with magnetic producer, Cook (Michael Fassbender), are supposed to put her music career in high-gear, but nothing has manifested. A chance encounter with B.V. (Ryan Gosling) points to something more nourishing, an intimacy that she hadn’t previously encountered. Their burgeoning relationship makes no difference to Cook, though, he is more than equipped to drive them apart again. His carnal relationship with a local waitress (Natalie Portman) certainly suggests his lack of scruples.
If Malick’s films are to be read as morality plays regarding sin, then Fassbender’s Cheshire cat grin and heightened powers of suggestibility are to be believed, he must be the Devil himself, leading Gosling’s Adam and Mara’s Eve out of Eden. Fassbender is one of the most compelling characters present, if not the most compelling character in any of Malick’s recent output. Though much of his behavior leans towards the incredulous, pulses quicken when Fassbender appears, out of the shadows, to distill and distribute chaos all around him.
By virtue of this film’s construction, it’s nearly impossible to gather what chronological order the events transpire in. Mimicking the passage of time in a dreamscape or memory. Using the songs (ranging from Del Shannon’s “Runaway” to Die Antwoord) to launch from memory to memory/emotional vantage points like the random firing of synapses. Malick’s introspective gaze regarding fame, wealth, and listlessness remind audiences to focus on the here and now, but it’s impossible to do so when every “here” moment lasts, at most, a minute.
Tightened, this plot would succeed in ways that Malick’s other recent films haven’t, but some traces of story that belong on the cutting room floor sprung back into the reel. Cate Blanchett’s widow is pure decoration, the subplot regarding B.V.’s father feels recycled out of Knight of Cups, and the parade of musicians don’t factor in at all. These meager roles are fragments that can’t justify the amount of time devoted to them, though one would pay a premium admission to watch Val Kilmer chainsaw his way through more speakers. Song to Song won’t convert anyone who isn’t already charmed by Malick’s late-period offerings, but there are more bursts of creativity here than previous entries.
Enjoyment of Song to Song is entirely dependent upon how much work one is willing to bring to it. One could read the proceedings with a Biblical lens, or another look at the trappings of the material world, and another on the ecstasy of love that can never truly last. With so little in the way of a firm narrative, one could bring anything into the film and be right. The third act cycling back in on itself could be read as 1) Malick’s inability to fight out of a feedback loop or 2) a comment on the soulless repetition of the music industry.
The provocative nature of Song to Song cannot be denied, yet it is still hampered by the same narration that usually brings Malick’s films to a halt: “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you. Because you saw them with me. Come save me from my bad heart.” For a man that so openly defies the conventions of filmmaking, he does seem afraid of silence. And afraid of letting actors convey intentions without injecting his own melodic yarns while gazing upward at one more tree.
After a trilogy of films depicting asserting his belief that the drift of life matters more than climactic moments, Malick has nothing left to say on the subject. To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and this picture were all filmed concurrently, and with Radegund on its way, it feels safe to say that Malick may put this free-form storytelling to rest. There will likely not be another notable director to tackle such experimental filmmaking again, yet it’s difficult to say that the three films have made any sort of lasting impact. If clarity is the path to inner peace, then Terrence Malick is as lost as his own protagonists.