“I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss…,” Rooney Mara whispers softly near the beginning of fanciful, butterfly-net-catching filmmaker Terrence Malick’s latest ephemeral wisp of a movie. Working without a script (natch) and characteristically placing a premium of stream-of-conscious impressionism over story, Malick’s new drama, “Song To Song,” aims its floaty shoegaze at the complexities of love, the wickedness of man, and intangible spiritual longing themes that suffuse all his work. For better or worse, immutability is the director’s identity: an artist in search of divinity by essentially writing the same song over and over and over again as if dogged perseverance with the ringing chords will eventually reveal some kind of radiant profundity. Break on through to the other side, man. The result is disheartening and may even leave you resentful, with the knowledge that a true poet is painting with the same splendorous canvas, and yet still offering diminishing returns.
Set along the backdrop of the rollin’ and tumblin’ music scene in Austin, Texas — the fertile ground for the South By Southwest Music Fest and the renowned Austin City Limits Festival and TV show (portions of the film were shot at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest) — “Song To Song” is triangulated by three characters: BV (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring, perhaps somewhat naïve rock musician; Faye (Rooney Mara), a music biz receptionist with her own musical ambitious; and Cook (Michael Fassbender), an arrogant, tricksy music producer who soon reveals his none-too-surprising serpentine colors. As Malick is wont to do, “Song To Song” spins around these characters as their lust, affairs, and confusion crash into each other, causing collateral damage to many other unsuspecting lovers, played by primarily Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Bernice Marlohe. Surprisingly, Swedish musician Lykke Li has a fairly substantial role as Gosling’s ex. And Patti Smith shows up a lot too (however, Academy Award winner Christian Bale, featured in many of the early set photos, is yet another cutting room floor victim of Malick’s whims).
In pursuit of some kind of revelation, Malick has abandoned narrative cinema, for an aimless, fragmented, quasi-experimental form, that while once unique, has curdled into cliché, and even self-parody (results may very). And so the filmmaker’s spiritual impulses and aesthetics, forged with “The Tree Of Life,” and cemented with “To The Wonder” and “Knight Of Cups,” have not changed and may never evolve further (though hope springs eternal with his upcoming, not-labored-over WWII movie “Radegund“). Malick is, by design, trapped in a self-made feedback loop of soul-seeking infinity. To his receding disciples, the mode is everything. To the rest of the world it’s aggravating. And to some cinephiles, it’s gorgeous, but patience-testing.
And yet, as much as Malick’s rock scene-centered love triangle drama is a familiar echo, the director inches out slightly beyond his usual borders and preoccupations. Malick’s feathery instinctual aesthetics haven’t changed, but his emotional tones are pitched somewhat in a different key this go round. It makes for a typically swirling and occasionally even rapturous experience, but at an overlong two hours and eight minutes, the evanescent “Song To Song” wears out its welcome by a good half an hour.
If you really want to stretch an observation (and I do) about marginal innovation — a key term not to forget here — Malick’s movie twirls less and spins in concentric circles of orbit more. This is to say, Gosling, Fassbender and Mara circumnavigate each other physically and emotionally like satellites in the film, but are pulled by the gravity of their desires. Mara is caught in the middle of devotions — to the lecherous Fassbender whom she hungers for, and the warmhearted Gosling whom she connects with and pines for. She’s infidelitous. She’s complicated.
While Malick stays at home stylistically, the director stretches out thematically in the exploration of thirst and sexuality; modes the filmmaker has rarely meditated on before. And while his films generally tend to revolve around men, “Song To Song” refreshingly centers on a woman and the pushes and pulls of her ardor and affections. If virtuousness is an obsession, Malick paints in relatively new shades of colors with his consideration of sinfulness too. As pure wicked ID, Fassbender and his Cheshire cat-grinning character is an invigorating new tenor in Malick’s oh-so-painfully sincere world. The snake oil salesman of the picture, Fassbender and his moral conundrums — vampiric in his manipulations of anyone who crosses paths with him — ends up as one of the most interesting characters in a Terrence Malick movie in some time. He even provides a little comic relief. Relatively, of course. It’s Malick after all.
While perhaps more emotionally textured in this regard (again, slightly) some of the observations are fairly simplistic. Malick imagines Austin, Texas’ rock scene as an Eden, a kind of paradise for artistic nomads aimlessly pilgrimaging around the nation. But of course, the betraying devil is right around the corner tempting the guileless with the apple-red promise of recording contracts.
Those impatient with Malick’s cyclical fixations will easily find themselves worn out by “Song To Song” especially in the enervating third act that essentially repeats the entire movie and its theme exhaustingly. Surface readings of the movie, some of which might not be off, may see a mirroring of his last picture “Knight Of Cups ” — with that film expressing the vapidity and soul-sucking nature of Hollywood, while the newer effort communicating the soulless and empty spirit of the music industry.
While still thin, one can argue there’s slightly more substance to “Song To Song” than there is in Malick’s previous draining, pretentious movie about a Hollywood screenwriter, so wealthy and lost, that he has to combat his spiritual bankruptcy to find out if his life has any greater meaning. But three characters struggling with gray moralities, using and abusing one another, deliver a few more emotional contours. Yet how many more shots of lovers rolling around hedonistically in the whirl of bed sheets together can you tolerate? “Song To Song” exhibits the existential paradox of loving Terrence Malick.
Certainly in an eyes-wide-open, woke culture, Malick’s movies are sure to provoke the socially conscious tired of seeing white privilege on screen and “Song To Song” features much of it. Nearly every scene is shot in some palatial Austin mansion (nearly all of them with gigantic floor to ceiling windows). No one seems to work, the privileged protagonists seems to meander about, and yet someone is ostensibly paying for what are many of the movie’s ostentatious parties of excess. You would hardly fault the critic that says, “Enough of this fucking bullshit.”
And one could have a field day reciting some of the risible bromides in or out of context — “I love your soul,” “I played with the fire of life…” and other would-be sonnets of poetry that often force one to muffle their laughs.
Malick never achieves transcendent higher truths with “Song To Song,” nor does he reach the spiritual ecstasy the filmmaker will chase for the rest of his life. So yes, the song remains the same, plangent reverberations and all. Still, a slightly improved, if still aggravating Terrence Malick is better than nothing, even if he’s simply traded in where-do-I-fit-in-the-universe twirling for what-does-it-all-mean wobbly oscillations of ache and desire. [C]