A week or so before I finally sat down for Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, I shared this Twitter musing: “Like bebop, I see Terrence Malick’s oeuvre as a singular, perhaps sublime art form for which I am simply temperamentally unsuited.” Misplaced modifier notwithstanding, that fairly neatly sums up the trepidation with which I’ve come to approach a new Malick feature, and which I explored after watching last year’s Knight of Cups. While I’ve had the occasional connection with something like The Tree of Life, there was this creeping sensation that my reaction to Malick was a “me” problem. Sometimes, a little humility in the face of art serves a writer best.
Song to Song is, on a fundamental level, simply a continuation of the path down which Malick has been strolling — through tall grass and/or wheat — for the last six years or so. It’s the story of someone — in this case, a woman named Faye (Rooney Mara) — in the midst of an existential crisis, which spills over into her romantic and familial relationships. From her dalliance with wealthy music-industry executive Cook (Michael Fassbender), she moves on to a more sensitive relationship with a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling), and eventually to an affair with a French woman (Bérénice Marlohe). Meanwhile, Cook begins another relationship with an ex-teacher-turned-waitress (Natalie Portman), BV begins a relationship with another woman (Cate Blanchett), and look, I’ll be honest, I never would have known any of these people even had names if not for the Internet Movie Database.
That’s part of what makes Malick so maddening for those who aren’t on his wavelength: His characters barely seem to occupy the physical world in which people have things like names and jobs, and spend time doing anything besides frolicking with their significant others. Song to Song is ostensibly set in the Austin music scene, in the same way that Knight of Cups was ostensibly set in Hollywood, and Malick does take the opportunity of filming during South by Southwest to get cameos by a few big-name artists, including Iggy Pop and Patti Smith (the latter of whom gets to drop some wisdom on Faye). But the milieu plays a virtually non-existent role in how these people’s lives unfold within the narrative, to the extent that when Cook asks Faye at one point whether she wants a recording contract, I was hard-pressed to recall any prior evidence that this was her career goal.
It’s even harder to connect with these people emotionally when Malick’s preferred narrative methodology — non-diegetic narration playing over whatever action is appearing on screen — blunts the opportunity to connect with their stories. His restless camera — again in the hands of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — produces lyrical imagery, from swooping birds to twilit fields, but the scenes of his characters together in difficult moments keep darting away from honest revelations at crucial moments. During a scene in which Faye is opening her heart to her father about how much she feels she’s disappointed him, the dialogue is abruptly lost as Malick turns up her interior monologue. It seems improbable that one of the most genuinely affecting scenes involves a prostitute — whose role lasts a grand total of perhaps four minutes — discussing the personal loss that led her to this life, until you realize it’s one of the few times when Malick allows anyone to speak for more than 30 seconds without interrupting them.
All this is true, yet there’s still a unique potency to Malick’s work, in part because he’s one of the few filmmakers who is interested in people wrestling with their souls (when they’re not, as Fassbender does here, wrestling with members of Red Hot Chili Peppers). Even the few minutes devoted to the back-story of Portman’s character makes her relationship with Cook feel particularly tragic, while Mara brings greater range to someone who is utterly adrift. Song to Song moves to Malick’s own instinctive, improvisational rhythm, and while that can make it hard to get a sense that his ethereal heroes and heroines are ever earthbound, he’s prowling around in corners that aren’t often explored. It’s possible to see the value of that kind of art, even if I’ll mostly ever appreciate it intellectually, rather than feel it in my bones.