Romance, the feeling, is a key component to most of Terrence Malick’s films, but he’s heretofore ducked and dodged from Romance, the genre. Days of Heaven, with its pulpy con plot beginnings, comes closest, but he maintains the same distance he did in Badlands by utilizing a dispassionate observer as our point of view into its world. As his career has gone on, he’s abandoned more and more such literary devices nearly every time out, coming closer to the pure shit (some critics would drop the article) of a lived cinema. Beginning with To the Wonder in 2012, he has gradually rid himself of plot, narrative coherence, or sometimes even common sense, chasing the Eden his characters so often find and lose. Song to Song is reportedly the last film he’ll make, for now, in this mold, and rightly so. Here he has perfected it. Here he has tired of sailing past his Indies, and found peace in consummated love.
Faye (Rooney Mara) is a young musician trying to make it big in Austin. She falls in love almost simultaneously, with two unnamed men who I will identify by the names granted them in the credits. With fellow troubadour BV (Ryan Gosling) and successful producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), she forms a sort of unwitting gang, neither man fully certain her affections are solely reserved for himself. Cook doesn’t much seem to care one way or the other, and his disinterest proves both hurtful and alluring. BV would certainly care, but his attentiveness can sometimes overwhelm his considerable charm.
More so than his last two narrative films – To the Wonder and Knight of Cups – Song to Song is ideally cast. Due to the amount of improvisation (not all of which is spoken) that Malick requires, his films tend to reveal an actor’s soul more quickly than those of many others. While the relative vacancy behind Ben Affleck’s and Christian Bale’s eyes were not wholly detrimental (their respective films are to some degree about losing one’s soul), Malick flourishes when his men can bear it all in a glance. This is why The New World remains his finest film; few male actors can so reflexively emote as Colin Farrell does. Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever-widening lenses have a way of magnifying all that is, or is not, there.
Fassbender has defined his screen persona around duplicity, playing men whose charisma or sexual allure is quickly poisoned by their callous indifference towards others. Gosling seems destined to a career as charming but needy men (or outright sociopaths, but Malick is not back in Badlands territory here). Yet to say neither is stretching by playing variations on their themes here ignores how resourceful a Malick actor has to be, how much they have to mine from their environment and their castmates.
I could say the same for Mara, whose career playing a series of wispy death traps and ingenues could scarcely prepare one for the sight of her joyously dancing around an apartment or rocking out on a guitar with Patti Smith. Mara has the heavy lifting of the film to do, drifting from man to man to woman to mother to family to man, and while she’s granted a decent percentage of Malick’s famous voiceover, she tells us much more about herself through her body language. Faye is at an awkward stage of life, having just been drawn out of nothingness (she was seduced by Cook as his receptionist) and now forced to hold her own in older, wealthier, more experienced crowds. She is prone to all the discomfort and mistakes such an experience brings, and the most moving shot of the film, near the end, is also probably its longest, simply resting on her processing the past two hours and however many months and years may have passed within it. As with Fassbender and Gosling, Malick is keyed into her sensual appeal – her hands in particular are a beautiful blend of nervous energy and sexual prowess, never better expressed than when Lubezki catches her hand tucked between a door and its handle latch.
Doors and other barriers are everywhere in this film. Soon after this lovely moment, one of Cook’s exes slams open the door to his glass house so hard, I feared she might have shattered it. Later, Faye will struggle to open the heavy door to a soon-to-be-lover’s home. That lover’s home is a maze, the wall layout as puzzling, unexpected, but somehow peaceful as their relationship will be. Cook’s glass house reflects his two-faced quality; it is both a wall and a window, a barrier and a portal. Even as Malick has shed studio-funded resources, he and production designer Jack Fisk (career-long collaborators) seem more resourceful and inventive than ever.
Malick is as famous for the temporal uncertainty I mentioned earlier as he is for his voiceover, but even as he has further radicalized the timeline, I’ve found his aesthetic cues to become much clearer in delineating it. While I would never claim absolute certainty at any given moment, his flashbacks tend to be quite fleeting while scenes set in the “present” tend to carry more complex and diegetic sound tracks. Put simply, the present feels very present. The doors sound heavier, the streets are more crowded, the dialogue is more straightforward. While such sensations drift away in memory, they have a way of clouding the here and now. Consequently, Malick’s characters recognize perfection only after it has slipped through their fingers, once they’ve wrung life of whatever illusion they abandoned it to chase.
What makes Song to Song so remarkable in this context, and so fulfilling a cinematic experience and a Romance picture, is that Malick is for once suggesting that such opportunities have a way of coming back around. He has reportedly likened his stories to water currents, telling his crew on The Thin Red Line, “It’s like moving down a river, and the picture should have the same kind of flow.” His films depict people caught in currents, unable to hold onto the peace they find. Before they even notice, they’re miles downstream and have forgotten their pursuit as they struggle just to stay afloat.
In Song to Song, his rivers still flow onward. Faye says early on she is chasing experiences, and seems drawn to whatever makes her momentarily feel the most alive. She swims through lovers and bandmates and vacations, sex and dancing; the most seductive rhythm takes priority. Her river intersects with others before diverging, the moment of perfect union having passed before she could see it. Then something new happens. Malick looks further, towards a different end. It recalls a line from The New World – “The river leads back there…. It leads onward too.” Finally, his rivers end in a sea where they merge together and are thrown back onto the shore.
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this film, and perhaps I’ll return to other strands in a follow-up piece after I see it again, which I hope will be soon. The film is especially replete with water imagery – not exactly new territory for Malick, but it ends on a particularly profound use of it that brought me to tears – that I hope to have a better grasp of next time around. For now, know that I haven’t taken this much pleasure in Malick since The New World, and I think Song to Song stands up among his very best.