Editor’s Note: Song to Song is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
There might be something to that quitting while you’re ahead thing. An auteur’s auteur, Terence Malick crafted an indelible, unimpeachable reputation as a visionary filmmaker with just two films, Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978), both made in the 1970s. For the better part of two decades, rumors swirled around new projects, but nothing came to fruition. Malick seemed destined to be revered not just for the two films he made in the 1970s, but for all of the unrealized projects left unfinished or abandoned outright. Then a miracle happened, Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ World War II novel, The Thin Red Line, in 1998, followed by a second, unexpected miracle, The New World seven years later, each one with individual strengths and weaknesses, but each the indisputable work of an auteur with a signature visual and narrative style. By 2011 and what many consider his magnum opus, The Tree of Life, Malick had fully returned to the front ranks of world cinema, but something odd happened along the way: Malick’s subsequent films, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and now Song to Song, undermined by a stubborn filmmaker’s inability to break free from self-imposed constraints.
It’s clear in Song to Song that Malick’s view of romantic relationships hinges not so much on organized religion, but on disorganized spirituality.
Malick’s go-to approach – finding the film in the edit, not in the script (if any) or in actual production – may have born artistic fruit for his first four or five films, but now it feels the opposite of original, new, or novel. Song to Song feels like the work of an artist long past his prime, desperately trying to stay relevant, but repeatedly failing. Malick doesn’t stray far from the oft-parodied visual style that’s made him, if not a household name among general moviegoers, then a well-known, well-respected filmmaker among cine-literate audiences. Malick’s constantly roving, wandering camera, often fitted with a fish-eye lens, obsessively follows Faye (Rooney Mara), an Austin-based musician with delusions of grandeur, the two men in her life, BV (Ryan Gosling), a fellow musician, and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a wealthy, manipulative music producer, as they fall in and out of bed, in and out of relationships, romantic and otherwise, with each other.
BV represents the pure, uncompromised, uncompromising artist (a Malick analog if there ever was one) while Cook represents the corrupted, corrupting financier, the conduit to surviving, even thriving as an artist in a capitalistic society. That Faye, less naïve and idealistic than she first appears, starts a romantic relationship with BV while she’s still sleeping with Cook, both out of a desire to test her physical and emotional boundaries and self-interest, makes her the focal point of Song to Song’s meandering, languorous, loosely structured narrative. While everyone gets a brief voiceover intro, a Malick specialty, it’s Faye and her decision between two men who represent not just different world views, but different poles on the heteronormative spectrum, a committed, monogamous relationship on the one hand (BV), or an open, hedonistic relationship on the other (Cook). Malick further sharpens the contrast by introducing Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress Cook romances and marries, but whose religious and moral values come into conflict with Cook’s lifestyle.
Maybe Malick needs a break from his filmmaking approach. Maybe he needs to work with a less ephemeral, stronger narrative not abstract ideas, but for some, that would be Malick betraying himself. That, however, does little to counteract the sense that Malick has painted himself – and by extension, his audience – into a creative dead end.
In Malick’s films, characters don’t talk, they speak in heightened, non-natural language, and not only when they speak to each other. When Malick privileges their interior life through voiceover, their monologues range from the lyrical and poetic to the faux-lyrical and the faux-poetic. It’s clear in Song to Song, however, that Malick’s view of romantic relationships hinges not so much on organized religion, but on disorganized spirituality. Malick’s characters repeatedly find themselves in sacred spaces that double as architectural marvels and objects of aesthetic admiration for three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes and natural lighting techniques. Malick leans into a spirituality that relies both on a view of the interconnectedness of nature, human and otherwise, and a conservative idea or ideal of romance where sex isn’t simply a bodily need or function, but sacred in and of itself and a purer, qualitatively better life doesn’t lie in material success or performing in front of large crowds at music festivals, but in ordinary, honest manual labor – the ending offers a callback of sorts to Jack Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces – and a near mystical appreciation of the natural world.
But that’s Malick being Malick. Maybe he’s in a creative rut, but if he is, it’s a self-consciously creative rut. Maybe Malick needs a break from his filmmaking approach. Maybe he needs to work with a less ephemeral, stronger narrative not abstract ideas, but for some, that would be Malick betraying himself. That, however, does little to counteract the sense that Malick has painted himself – and by extension, his audience – into a creative dead end. The increasing frequency of Malick’s output – four films in the last decade alone – makes each new Malick film less like a potentially life- or cinema-changing event and more like an unwanted, unneeded obligation for cine-literate moviegoers.
In Song to Song, one gets the sense that Terrence Malick has painted himself – and by extension, his audience – into a creative dead end. Maybe he's in a creative rut, but if he is, it’s a self-conscious one.