#4 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
In terms of this experimental period of Malick’s career, defined by the current era settings, extremely loose productions without scripts, and extended filming schedules, Song to Song is the best of the three. It is more emotionally involving than Knight of Cups and more complete than To the Wonder. I remember this showing up on Amazon Prime a couple of years ago. I was excited because I hadn’t seen it yet and apprehensive because Malick’s reputation had suffered. I was ready to be disappointed, finally, in a Malick film. And yet, I still got swept away with the story and the characters wondering, once again, what critics seemed to be missing.
It’s the story of a handful of people in Austin, Texas, centered around the music scene there. Cook, played by Michael Fassbender, is a music producer, a materialist, and a tempter into this world of carefree wealth. DV, played by Ryan Gosling, is a young musical talent just breaking out into the professional world. Faye, played by Rooney Mara, is Cook’s former receptionist who also plays music with dreams of going professional herself. Rhonda, played by Natalie Portman, is a former kindergarten teacher and current waitress that Cook picks up and quickly marries. These four characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, but the malignant center is Cook.
Like all Malick films, there’s an Eden like space where the characters are at their happiest, and that comes when Cook, DV, and Faye go to Mexico for a few days. It’s here that the Eden motif gains a new interesting twist where Cook essentially ends up filling the role of the serpent in the garden. His presence there takes a while to sow the seeds of mistrust between DV and Faye in their burgeoning relationship, but he’s still the direct source. What ends up happening is that they all go their separate ways after a time back in Austin. DV finds out that Cook has been cheating him out of rights to his music. DV digs at Faye’s past with Cook, uncovering new layers that he can’t get over. Faye feels guilty for continuing her sexual liaisons with Cook while seeing Faye. DV and Faye break up. Cook picks up Rhonda and swiftly brings the humble woman into his expensive and hedonistic lifestyle.
They happy trio has been split because of betrayal and corruption. Cook corrupted Faye. Cook betrayed DV. DV allowed his love of Faye to be corrupted by Cook. Cook corrupts Rhonda, though she knows what is happening and it bothers her. The movie isn’t really about temptation and corruption though, it’s about mercy and forgiveness. These characters need to go through a journey where mercy can come to them and through them. They need to hurt and feel lost, and that’s exactly what they go through.
The thing about Malick’s style is that he’s interested in capturing emotional moments that collect together into a thematic whole. That’s why his production approach ends up working for him rather than against him. He walks in with a clear idea of what he wants to say, lets improvisation guide his entire process with that goal in mind, and then collects the material together and whittles it down (the first cut of this film was apparently eight hours long). The production of Song to Song allowed for a lot of that intimate time between actors that led to the quiet moments that really make the movie work.
My wife watched with me for the first twenty minutes and ended up getting confused and walked out. She was expecting a straight forward and linearly told story. When I explained to her that the individual images on their own aren’t that important, that the cutting from one image to the next was more about creating an emotional sense than a literal sense, she simply rejected the storytelling aesthetic completely and gave up. I think that’s a challenge for a lot of people going into a Malick film, especially this trio of films, because they lean very heavily into the emotional space rather than the literal space. We’ve been conditioned to accept a certain type of visual storytelling, and Malick is different from that. It’s a completely different vocabulary to get used to, and that’s the kind of effort a lot of people don’t want to go through when sitting down to take in an entertainment. Personally, though, I’ve just gotten it since the first time I saw The Thin Red Line. It makes sense to me.
The film’s resolution was the most emotionally satisfying end to a Malick movie since The Tree of Life. The mercy and forgiveness exhibited by the characters, and the ultimate fall of another, was really touching.
Now, a comment about the actors. Ryan Gosling was himself, awkward and good looking so the girls love him. Rooney Mara is a wonderful mix of soulful and energetic, providing the primary bedrock on which the movie operates. Natalie Portman is quiet and sad. However it’s Michael Fassbender that really feels just right. He seems more physically active and able to improvise than any of the others, creating a wild card character, appropriately so, that is just interesting to watch. He’s probably the single best male actor Malick hired in this “captured moment” era.
Song to Song is a remarkable film. Tender and sad with wonderful performances and a clear emotional throughline, it’s the best Malick movie since The Tree of Life.