There’s more of a narrative in Song to Song than in Terrence Malick’s last two films, but that may not, at first, seem like a good thing. Pin Malick’s work down these days — tease a story or philosophy out of it – and you’re usually faced with something simple, almost corny, that seems to undercut the spellbinding invention of his filmmaking. This is, after all, a devout, 70-something guy raised in Oklahoma and Texas who still lives in the Lone Star State in what appears to be quiet modesty. For all the worldly experimentalism of Malick’s style, when his characters actually do “experiment” (and the word regularly comes up from movie to movie) — when they break boundaries, try new things, toss out old rules — it leads to disaster.
And so we’re left with works of formal abandon and moral resolve. But that’s also part of what makes them so fascinating and, yes, beautiful. The overall effect is that of an artist trying to understand his times, to indulge in the newness of a world he doesn’t always grasp — to find the beauty and wonder in it, even as it terrifies him. It’s a tradition that dates back to T.S. Eliot, the Metaphysical poets and beyond.
Song to Song follows four people in and around the Austin, Texas, music scene. Aspiring musicians Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) meet at a party thrown by their mutual pal, record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and quickly fall for each other. BV does his playful Ryan Gosling thing. (“Just tell me a complete lie. You can say anything you want to me. That’s the fun about me.”) Faye does her pinched, wide-eyed Rooney Mara thing. (“I wanted to be free the way he was.”) She doesn’t disclose that she has had a relationship with the charismatic, always grinning Cook. BV, meanwhile, is trying to collaborate with the man, charmed by his promises and power.
Faye and BV fall in and out of love. Then they find other people without ever quite letting go of one another. Meanwhile, Cook charms and slimes his way through everybody — cheating BV, compromising Faye and pretty much ruining a schoolteacher/waitress (Natalie Portman) whom he woos, marries, then degrades. Cook might seem like the snake in the grass, the money-waving, forked-tongue seducer — he’s the one character, after all, whose family we never see, and to whose thoughts we’re least privy — but Fassbender gives his oiliness a touching vulnerability. He’s clearly more fucked up than all of them, and he kind of knows it.
Song to Song continues the mosaic-like stylization of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups — an indulgence that has turned much of the critical establishment off to Malick. But it takes it in new directions, too. To the Wonder was effectively a dance performance in which characters’ movements revealed their relationships and emotions; Knight of Cups was a debauched fantasia in which the bizarre, rapid-fire progression of images and sounds and bodies mimicked the protagonist’s intoxicated, alienated mental state. Song to Song in some ways stands as the most earnest and optimistic of the three films, for here the focus is on the derangement of love, on how the literal imbalance and free-fall of passion eventually turn into the equilibrium of constancy.
Issues of trust run through the movie, both in snatches of dialogue and the repeated image of characters leaning into one another and off things, as if replicating the popular “trust exercise” so common in acting classes and self-help seminars. People hang off all sorts of objects in Song to Song — off ledges, trees, couches, tables, balconies. At one point, BV and Cook jokingly replicate a zero-G simulation in an airplane, balancing on tables and seats as if they were somehow floating inside the aircraft. Fassbender’s Cook has a long pool over which his terrace looms; that pool becomes the setting for his hedonism. (“What do you see?” “A pool?” “A stage show.”)
The outdoor concert venues have a railing looking down at the stage; the music producer loves to take his guests there and observe the throngs below, like some sort of deity. The dominant gesture in the first half of the film is of characters looking down — staring, hanging, fake-plunging. They all want to take some sort of leap, to let go of their footing, and Malick connects that impulse to the wooziness of romance. Later, after his inevitable breakup, BV leans back in a chair, all alone in a room, and crashes to the floor, with nobody to catch him.
Malick has packed the film with songs, but we don’t see or hear much of BV’s output, and occasional glimpses of Faye onstage don’t tell us anything about her music. Song to Song may be set in the Austin music scene, but you won’t get much insight into that industry here — just as Knight of Cups won’t tell you anything about the actual life of a working Hollywood screenwriter and To the Wonder doesn’t offer much detail about the world of … [checks notes] … environmental inspectors. Instead, Malick uses the texture of the music scene metaphorically. The nonstop barrage of songs, of performers and postures and acts (Red Hot Chili Peppers! Iggy Pop! Patti Smith! Val Kilmer?), replicates the rhythm of a life lived from embrace to embrace, of constant movement with little grounding.
“Grounding,” I suppose, is the key word there. Malick’s ideas about devotion and romance seem rooted in a fairly straight-arrow notion of monogamy and family. And so Song to Song, not unlike his earlier The New World, moves from the drunk first flush of love to the quest for stability. Characters fall from those heights: The second half, in contrast to the first, finds its people lying down, crawling, looking up, seemingly dreaming of where they once stood. (They even go underwater at several moments, as if trying to get even lower.)
And so we go from dizzying highs to debilitating lows as we try to make our way back to ground level — to something clear-eyed and constant. That version of formalism won’t work for every viewer; you could build a first-world economy using the critics and viewers that Malick has estranged over the years. But connect with the kineticism of Song to Song, and it might just leave you breathless.