Nobody is making films like Terrence Malick. Some argue that this is a bad thing, whilst others argue otherwise. Regardless, this is a fact. The director’s latest film, Song to Song, may prove testament to those that have championed the auteur despite the doubt audiences have recently felt at this stage in his long-spanning career.
The film concerns love triangles and deceptive relationships set against the backdrop of the music scene in Austin, Texas. However, plot has rarely been a concern for Malick; he is much more concerned with encouraging audiences to feel, empathise and connect with the characters he brings to the screen. He is a man who contemplates his creations and cinematic meditations. After what is arguably his masterpiece, Days of Heaven, in 1978, he did not make another film until The Thin Red Line, twenty years later. Needless to say, Malick’s output has been more frequent since then, but many critics and fans of his work have grown weary of his output in recent years – for many, Knight of Cups confirmed his departure from greatness, and his spiral into self-indulgence. His style is divisive, and understandably many have grown detached from what one can come to expect from a film bearing his name. Surprisingly, Song to Song is bursting with genuine substance and heart.
The cast are wonderful. It is undeniable that many talented individuals of Hollywood still want to work with Malick. The film boasts an an ensemble cast of some of the finest screen actors in recent memory, such as Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara, among others. Mara is enchanting, and delivers a profound performance in what can be considered the lead role. All of the central characters are rather fascinating, because they are well acted, mosaic strangers that the audience must come to understand and analyse during their time with them. We follow them on their journey of self-discovery through one another – they travel, immersing themselves in the culture of others, maybe because they feel the one they are apart of is superficial and materialistic, yet they remain unchanged. Their search for fulfilling enlightenment will not come from conventional means.
Cook (Fassbender) is the very image of success, as exemplified by his possessions and surroundings. In conversation with BV (Gosling), he reveals that this projection of wealth is a stage-show. Later, BV is looking through drawers in a luxurious apartment, and they are empty. In this respect, Malick continues exploring the themes of false wealth and happiness that he began to in Knight of Cups, but is much more effective in doing so when the characters feel real. There is an emptiness to their lives, one that they desperately seek to fill with love, but that proves problematic. Through camerawork and the frequent use of wide-angle lenses, Malick provides audiences with such a grand and omniscient perspective of what is going on in these characters lives that it sometimes makes the emotions they feel seem small and insignificant, when in reality they are absolutely everything. This is a film about belonging, and all importantly, love, and what it means to be loved authentically. But, it is approached with humanity and understanding, rather than malice and contempt for the wrongdoings they commit upon one another. Cook thinks of himself as a king, and struts as though a lion basking in his kingdom, but his throne is bright pink – none of this is real, and these realisations are chronicled as though channelling through a meticulous spectrum of human sentiment.
The frequent employment of voice-over make it more of a reflection on one’s self than us passing judgement. The characters are contemplating and coming to terms with their own regret and miscalculated decisions. The love they share is not always real, it is not always fair and kind, but it is important. In this sense, some of the films unconventional provocations of affection are abstractly romantic. Certain scenes possess a poetry, an idyllic bliss, and feel beautifully hypnotic as a result of the way they are shot, and as as these sequences synthesise they become strangely whole – it almost feels as if you have absorbed years of someone’s life during the duration of the film.
It looks astonishing, and marks Malick’s fifth collaboration with acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The film was shot back to back with Knight of Cups, and it certainly shows, as both look incredible. But, Song to Song, despite its faults, manages to communicate an entire world that is recognisable but so distant from our own. Admittedly, it feels like it reaches a logical conclusion countless times in its last act, but that may be because every shot is so breathtaking, it would be fitting to illustrate with it a symbolic departure. The film is not perfect, though there is life in a film of this ilk, and seeing it on the big screen is sure to provide patient audiences with an unforgettable experience.