Of the films in Terrence Malick’s uncharacteristically productive post-Tree of Life period, Song to Song is the best and most accessible. That doesn’t mean it’s a conventional, or even an easy, watch. The auteur’s latest is just as poetic, dialogue-averse, and irregularly constructed as To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, but its themes are clear and the abstractions have more perceptible depth.
Before we get to the familiar roving camera and discordant scenes captured beautifully with a wide-angle lens, Song to Song starts with a shot of a door that opens a crack. It’s a fitting introduction, and not only because of the characters standing on either side. It begins our eavesdropping on the slice of life vignettes that follow. Much like Malick’s previous two works, this story doesn’t necessarily begin or end, it just exists for a while before we leave it. The difference is that the gaps are easier to fill in this time and, coupled with the aesthetics, the wispy tale casts a relevant spell.
Despite the meandering, it wouldn’t be accurate to call Song to Song plotless. Faye (Rooney Mara) is trying to gain a foothold in the Austin music scene. She becomes involved in a love triangle with fellow musician BV (Ryan Gosling) and sleazy industry bigshot Cook (Michael Fassbender). The focus is on Faye and BV, but the shape and scope of the relationship examination expands to include several more partners. Unworldly waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) is wooed by, and marries, Cook. There’s also a restless woman played by Cate Blanchett, an exotic beauty (Bérénice Marlohe), and a successful singer (Lykke Li, playing a version of herself).
The vagueness with how all of the players drift in and out of romances is more refreshing than frustrating. One exception is the short shrift give to Blanchett’s character. Her minor role could be an attempt at a thematic point, but not even the actress’ copious talents – used here to look melancholy and demurely collect the pearls from a broken necklace – can make the thin sketch connect.
With much more time to work with, Mara and Portman stand out as broken souls adrift in the fractured narrative; emotions running from despair to elation. They’re also overwhelmed by their surroundings. Whether it’s being physically (and psychologically) dominated by Fassbender or getting lost in a cacophony of backstage folly, mosh pits, raves, and industry parties at grand contemporary homes, the crush of the setting is evident, the camera deliberately establishing each locale and their small place in it.
Also appreciable, without being overt, is the emotional baggage being carried around. We only need a short, largely quiet scene with Rhonda and her mother (Holly Hunter) to understand their roots and why the waitress would be enticed by the slick Cook. And why she would feel trapped later. Similarly, allusions to the familial dramas that weigh on Faye and BV have heft without needing detailed descriptions.
Mara and Gosling clearly and effectively express all of the hope, regret, pain, and pleasure that has come from their life choices and consequences beyond their control, while Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki tell those stories with typically gorgeous visuals. Yes, some shots are repetitive and/or on the nose – rippling water and flocking birds become tired go-tos, but the philosophical artistry communicates the vision in a striking way.
Surprisingly, for an esoteric rumination set against the backdrop of an eclectic music scene, the musical choices are a disappointment. The score barely registers and the soundtrack is uninspired. It’s true that the director may be more interested in the sentiment that forms a song than the song itself, but some more robust cuts could add to the stimulation. Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is a highlight and briefly adds some pep; other droning tracks only serve to propagate the belief that the director’s lyricism is unnecessarily plodding.
In the case of Song to Song, the subdued, controlled chaos works; musical blandness and occasional visual reverberations notwithstanding. It’s about the dynamic experience of being or becoming an artist (or just simply chasing the euphoria of the idea of being an artist), while also dealing with the despair that accompanies the journey. It’s similar to the ebbs and flows of romantic connection, at times rapturous, then leaving loneliness in the receding wake. Malick and a solid cast distill that dizzying quest, with all of its soul-crushing yearning and the desire to be fulfilled.