When you watch a Terrence Malick movie, you never know quite what to expect. While the reclusive auteur always hits his evergreen hallmarks, a visual signature of sorts, the unfurling story he tells changes ever so slightly. SONG TO SONG, a film he shot five years ago, spins the same kind of tune – one that feels like part of an album he’s recording, starting with TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS. Austin’s vibrant, eclectic music scene provides the backdrop for a love story exploring similar relationship turf – diverse dynamics between fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, lovers, adversaries and friends. The film is Malick’s attempt at understanding the female psyche by placing his two female leads in the foreground of the narrative. However, it would’ve served him better had he either given them more weight instead of chickening out and wandering off with the men, or just made this his typical tale about male ego. That said, more than half of it works, and that makes it a must-experience for Malick completists.
Faye (Rooney Mara) is in her early twenties, searching for her identity in the sprawling Austin music scene, knowingly coupled up with the wrong guy – slick, possessive and underhanded music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender). When we first hear him speak, a hot blonde at a rich people party doffs her top and gets wet in the pool (as any red-blooded woman probably does in real life when speaking with Fassy). The Armani-clad bad boy satisfies a need in her – a yearning to experience pain. Her world shifts once she meets sweet songwriter BV (Ryan Gosling). The pair exchange flirtatious glances, pecks on the cheek and small talk before she breaks it off with Cook. Around that time Cook meets the love of his life, waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), who brings out a side in him he’s never felt before. She’s seduced by his wealth and looks. But love is a tumultuous, fleeting state, played out in fits and starts. In Malick’s world that means breaking up and making up with no lines of demarcation, and also falling under the spell of other lovers – like BV’s singer ex-flame (Lykke Li), hot French woman Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), and depressed wealthy heiress Amanda (Cate Blanchett).
Modern Malick movies all have the same end zones – it’s just a matter of whether they yield a touchdown. On the visual storytelling side, his swirling camera movements imitate the fluidity of life. Camera placement is also crucial as he shoots from a vantage point of either submission or equivalence. Framing connotes characters’ emotions, whether they are in a position of power or not. There’s an immediacy and urgency to the frame. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning – even when capturing the mundane (a church service) or the magnificent (sex, illness, golden-hour lit love, doggos). From Malick’s symbolic use of nature, water and light, metaphors abound.
Though the flavor of Austin is muted by the narrative as it becomes less about the music and more about the relationships, Malick makes astute use of physical locations. They enhance the sense of feeling boxed in, feeling trapped (willingly or unwillingly). We’re inside these couples’ intimate moments (happy or sad). There are only a few times where we’re outside – like with BV and his brother Tom (Tom Sturridge), or with Faye and her sisters – where we feel the freedom of release and soul-baring truth. While these locations are easy on the eyes, when the mind begins to wander (and boy will it in the second half), you may find yourself questioning whose house, apartment, condo, hotel room are we in. It doesn’t matter in terms of impact, but it feels like a misstep on Malick’s part to be so lax. The less distraction and noise, the better. Production designer Jack Fisk’s work is subtle but effective, conveying a clean sensibility, eschewing anything to clutter Malick’s portrait. Jacqueline West’s costumes augment the characters’ mindsets – particularly Rhonda’s, whose wardrobe goes through a dramatic shift from loose to bound and restrictive. With her flowy tops and bohemian sundresses, most of Faye’s wardrobe is demonstrative of the tactile autonomy she craves.
Narratively, Malick has his perpetual go-to’s, though he at least attempts to flip his usual script here. Women, slightly moreso than the men, wrestle with existential conundrums. Faye and Rhonda’s loving relationships with the same man provide a totally mesmerizing dichotomy – with one lover resisting and the other succumbing. His characters typically trade in rich people problems, and it’s no different here. There’s also very little diversity in the casting choices. Throw in everyone having daddy issues and you’ve got yourself what we in the biz call, “A Terrence Malick movie.” However, there are plenty of keen insights to hang onto – specifically Cook’s mutterings about how life is “all for sale. It’s all a stage show. It’s all just free fall.”
SONG TO SONG plunges us into an elegant fantasy-driven world – one that’s not demarcated by time signatures or defining relationship labels. It’s a metaphorical ballad of ennui and existential thought that’s more of an underground recording than a chart-topping hit.
3.5 out of 5
SONG TO SONG opens on March 17.