In a way it’s brave, Terrence Malick’s recent decision to make himself less scarce. For nearly four decades, Malick films were rare and elusive events that only appeared on the horizon after five, eight, or even 20 years of waiting. But starting with his masterful The Tree Of Life (2011), Malick has increased his filmography by roughly 100 percent over the course of just six years. This requires a different sort of patience from his audience—a willingness to indulge repeated, rather than occasional, trips to his seemingly infinite well of straight-faced spiritual mopes.
With Song To Song, Malick completes a trilogy of experimental B-sides to Life’s daunting A-side—that is, unless he makes six or seven more of these things in the years to come. As with To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups, that possibility sounds almost enticing in the intoxicating opening moments, reintroducing his inimitable style after even a brief break. And as usual, the narrative-rebuffing contemplations and the Emmanuel Lubezki camera that hovers around the characters like a butterfly are less enthralling after a couple of hours.
Subtle differences do make their way into the frame. Song To Song’s settings in and around Austin, Texas, including plenty of footage shot at the Austin City Limits music festival, increase the sense that Malick is basically shooting a documentary about fictional characters. In that format, the heavy amounts of voice-over, montage, snippets of crowd scenes, and spare dialogue make a lot more sense. Gradually, the movie introduces (though doesn’t always name) a trio of sort-of lovers: Faye (Rooney Mara) and B.V. (Ryan Gosling), both aspiring musicians, and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a rich producer of some sort who shares with Christian Bale’s Knight Of Cups character a fondness for standing at the edge of expensive-looking pools.
The specifics of this love triangle aren’t clear right away, to the audience or possibly even to the people on screen. B.V. seems to know Cook through Faye, and early on learns that Faye has known Cook since she served as an administrative assistant at his company, though whether that’s a label, production house, or something else is never explained. When the three of them take a trip to Mexico, it’s B.V. and Cook who appear most flirtatious, dancing and play-fighting; put together, the three of them resemble a group of slightly confused but often ecstatic teenagers.
At some point, Faye, who wants to “experience” life and resists being tied down, begins dating B.V., while Cook takes up with schoolteacher turned waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman). All of them take turns at the voice-over mic, but the movie keeps returning to Mara, who is by turns both ideal and awkward as a Malick heroine. An actor of her quiet intensity doesn’t need dialogue to convey her emotions, but she also doesn’t need endless narration, and often sounds uncomfortable delivering it (“I wanted to live… [to] sing my song”). Of course, mastery of all that whispery reflection is a dubious task for any performer. When the movie simply regards her, in all her pensiveness and micro-reactions, her characterization comes to life.
Couples in Malick movies tend to have a lot of downtime, but they never spend it, say, going to the grocery store (though there is one stray shot of Mara there on her own, looking contemplative as ever). Malick couples prefer long walks on the beach, as well as long walks in the park, long walks through the festival grounds, and long walks on the construction site. Maybe Gosling’s mumbly charm is superhuman, or maybe it’s just that Mara’s occasional shimmying to rock music is less self-consciously, tediously ethereal than past Malick grass-twirlings, but their scenes together feel more lushly romantic than the equivalent moments in Wonder or Cups.
The quartet of actors lends Song To Song somewhat more focus, but it still finds ways to sprawl. Cate Blanchett, Patti Smith, Holly Hunter, and Iggy Pop all drift in and out, and Malick has a way of pulling whatever famous people are at hand into his orbit. Some, like a touching Portman, float in straight from his last movie, while others, like an absent Christian Bale, tried to make the jump but wound up cut out entirely. There’s something admirable about Malick’s willingness to excise just about anyone from his final cut, be it Batman or Arcade Fire. It marks his spontaneity as genuine, not just a handheld simulation.
Apparently also genuine is Malick’s overall lack of interest in the mechanics of the music industry, or even of basic musical creativity: Fassbender stands in for basically the entirety of the former, while some acoustic and piano noodling from Mara and Gosling passes for the latter. The film treats music as part of a landscape, a new form of lapping water or rustling grass—not that those elements are left out entirely. But they do compete with rock songs, some from performance footage and some not, which fade in and out of the soundtrack alongside classical cuts. They rarely stick around for longer than 30 or 40 seconds, like distant radio stations picked up by Malick’s very specifically tuned antenna.
As novel as it is to see Malick and Lubezki dip into an acrobatic mosh pit to shoot footage with a fish-eye lens, it’s easy to overstate Song To Song’s differences from its direct predecessors. Anyone whose patience was tried by halfway through Wonder will probably not rush back to the fold for this one. Yet there are moments here that land with more emotional resonance than anything he’s done since Tree: the sound of the small talk Rhonda makes with a sex worker, or the sight of a grieving mother breaking down in a parking lot, or a brief scene between Gosling and a family member in the final stretch. There are wilder, funnier moments, too, like Fassbender imitating a chimp on a beach, or a too-brief appearance from Val Kilmer as a self-destructive (and also amp-destructive) rock star. Song To Song simultaneously wants to capture every little thing in its sight, and as few big things as possible; it’s a strategy as foolhardy as it is stunningly beautiful. It’s also what turns these last three Malick movies into strange, sometimes elusive gifts of abundance.