“Any experience is better than no experience.” So says Faye (Rooney Mara), through voiceover, early on in Terrence Malick’s latest freeform cinematic fantasia Song to Song. She’s articulating her own approach to living life, but she’s also indirectly speaking for the director’s own approach to storytelling: a style that foregrounds moments and sensations over narrative coherence, his films jumping from one impression to the next with startling rapidity, like a mind eagerly rummaging through a memory bank. Any broader takeaways from his stream-of-consciousness audio-visual collages are left entirely up to the viewer. Even as he’s dramatically increased his productivity in the past few years (five features since 2011’s The Tree of Life, after a mere four between 1973’s Badlands and 2005’s The New World), Malick defiantly remains the kind of artist who, rather than catering to audiences, demands that audiences come to him.
Whether the rewards of following such an uncompromising artist are worth the challenge is also ultimately up to the viewer to determine for him-/herself. Though I’m someone who was even willing to follow Malick down the rabbit hole of intercontinental romance and cultural displacement in his much-dismissed To the Wonder, Malick tried to apply his transcendental vision to a privileged Hollywood screenwriter’s spiritual emptiness in his last fiction feature, Knight of Cups, and for once his style struck me as just as laughably pretentious and unbearably navel-gazing as many claimed To the Wonder was.
For those who had begun to find Malick’s whispery invocations of “mother” and/or “father” in his recent work worthy of eye-rolling parody, though, one may be taken aback by the first word we hear Rooney Mara utter, in voiceover, at the beginning of Song to Song: “I,” part of a longer statement that suggests an actual flesh-and-blood human being looking back on experiences past. In Malick’s aesthetic universe, this counts as a seismic shift. More than placing us squarely in the realm of the earthbound rather than the heavenly, this opening salvo situates us in the realm of the deeply personal, suggesting a film concerned less with the cosmic than with the mundane: memory, reality, the here and now.
Lest that imply Malick’s about to make a radical departure from his artistic norm—not so fast. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera still roves around landscapes, and the editing (five editors are credited this time around) still restlessly flits from image to image. The soundtrack for Song to Song may have more rock tunes than usual, but there are still characteristic bits of classical music here and there (with Gustav Mahler, Arvo Pärt, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel all making auditory cameo appearances). And Malick remains as elliptical a storyteller as ever, demanding viewers piece together the details of the narrative from the impressionistic whizz-bang montage and ruminative first-person voiceover narration.
Like Knight of Cups, Song to Song is a showbiz tale, this time set amid the music scene in Austin, Texas (where Malick currently resides). But instead of centering around a successful Hollywood creative type lamenting his soulless existence, he focuses his attention on a group of up-and-coming talents: two struggling musicians, Faye and her boyfriend BV (Ryan Gosling), and some of the higher-ups that surround them, principally the amoral record executive, Cook (Michael Fassbender), with whom Faye cheats on BV for the sake of her career. The story that Malick tells in Song to Song is a familiar one: a romance mixed in with a cautionary tale, with Cook the big-business devil figure to the angel that is the uncompromisingly independent BV, with Faye forced to choose between one or the other. One could even uncharitably call the characters here overly simplistic.
But of course, Malick has never been one for conventional storytelling and three-dimensional characterizations, even less so in his recent work. So the romantic triangle is depicted more as a series of brief flashes in which we see Faye, BV and Cook all engage in variations of flirty rapport with each other. But though Malick has tackled romances before—The New World essentially dramatizes a love triangle between Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe in America’s dawning years, while To the Wonder chronicles an overseas romantic fling that curdles once both lovers relocate to the U.S.—I’m not sure I’ve seen a Malick film that has dripped with as much pure romantic fervor as Song to Song exudes in long stretches: You can practically feel the heat in the interactions between these characters even in the short bursts of activity Malick presents us, and much of the pleasure of the film’s first half lies simply in watching them behave around each other—not always something that can be said for a Malick film, in which characters have often been used simply as icons.
Song to Song, however, adds up to more than just its romantic aspects. Malick came in for a lot of snarky hard knocks in To the Wonder for the way he had his female lead, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), frequently moving around in the manner of a dancer pirouetting, but all that twirling expressed something primal about the character: an openness to new experiences, even if some of those new experiences eventually lead her down a dark and depressive path. Such is the excitement of being a living, breathing, feeling human being on this earth. It’s that pulsating sense of wonder at the world around us that has always animated Malick’s work, and Faye is merely his latest vessel for expressing this perpetually innocent and un-ironic perspective. It’s quite possible, though, that Malick has never been as direct in articulating his worldview as he is in Song to Song, especially with the line of voiceover narration that opened this review.
So once again: “Any experience is better than no experience.” The 20s are generally considered the prime decade of adulthood in which people feel the freest to put themselves out there, find themselves, make mistakes and learn from them. That is precisely the moment at which Malick captures Faye, as filtered through her romantic vacillations between BV and Cook. In that sense, Song to Song could be considered Terrence Malick’s youth movie: an ode to that universal time in one’s life when a person is trying to figure out who exactly they are, and who they want to be going forward.
But Malick is hardly a youth himself, even if his recent rush of filmmaking activity suggests some kind of rediscovery of youthful vitality. Song to Song is infused with that vitality in ways wholly appropriate to its characters, but the film nevertheless carries hints of the kind of complicating wisdom that can only come with experience. As one might expect from Malick, some of that wisdom is spiritual in nature, with the power of forgiveness becoming especially prominent in the film’s home stretch. And yet, if Malick’s spiritual concerns felt more shoved-in than organic in To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, in Song to Song Faye’s own dawning spiritual awakening—an awareness of a life outside of her Austin music bubble—feels genuinely hard-won, with us in the audience allowed to discover it along with the character. Towards the end, forgiveness is described by one of the characters as “like a new paradise.” The great achievement of Malick’s latest film is that he validates that sentiment through the sheer power of his visceral, sensual, and above all temporally and spiritually searching filmmaking, making it feel like wisdom resounding throughout the ages.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.