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Terrence Malick’s True Romance

‘Song to Song’ finds feeling in familiar tropes — this time without dinosaurs

(Broad Green Pictures)
(Broad Green Pictures)

I always wonder, when I’m watching a Terrence Malick film, whether any of the actors hate each other. Not that I know of any discord on the set of Song to Song, Malick’s newest film — I just can’t help but be curious about what a feud would look like on the set of a movie that feels so cozy. It is by now well known that Malick shoots hundreds of hours of footage for his movies, and as anyone who’s seen his recent work knows, much of that footage is conspicuously intimate. His films are full of long scenes of his actors kissing, touching, and confiding their existential grief. They sing, twirl, pose, and play, their bodies expressing their whimsical moods unambiguously. The jury may still be out, for many, on whether Malick is an artist-philosopher or simply a bullshit artist. Either way, he’s undeniably a romantic. And there is perhaps no greater romance in his work than between the actors and his camera, which immortalizes their every minor gesture and mood for the big screen.

It’s no wonder, then, that Malick keeps working with movie stars, pros at the art of selling one’s charisma for a living. And it’s likewise unsurprising that the response to his movies, which use those stars to Malick’s increasingly curious ends, has lately been underwhelming. Song to Song, which comes out Friday, stars Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman as a quartet of lovers hovering through and alongside the Austin music scene. Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, and Bérénice Marlohe add further romantic and familial complication, and a roving cast of professional musicians — from Lykke Li to Patti Smith to Big Freedia — floats in and out of the characters’ lives. The movie was filmed in 2012, over the course of 40 days, and was originally eight hours long — hence the lengthy time in the editing room. “Is this going to be a miniseries?” Malick, making a rare public appearance at SXSW this year, says he asked himself while editing. “We have enough to make a different movie.”

That’s not unusual for Malick. With its languorous plot and dreamily observant style, Song to Song is of a piece with Malick’s other films of late, particularly the 2012 romantic drama To the Wonder and last year’s Hollywood-centric Knight of Cups. These movies, plus The Tree of Life (2011) and the widely unseen IMAX documentary Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016), mark an unusually active stretch of output for the director — a certifiable late period with a distinct style and, apparently, wellsprings of unprecedented inspiration. Remember, this is the guy who took a 20-year gap between his second and third full-length projects, 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line. His next film, The New World, arrived seven years after that, and Tree of Life was yet another six-year wait. Now, all of a sudden, he’s early-career Rihanna. In fact, his next film, the WWII romance Radegund, is already on the books for later this year.

Song to Song fits comfortably within the tradition of Malick’s late output, but it also stands out as the movie that best justifies his recent experimentation. It’s the movie in which his ends best justify his means, in which his late style and his story seem to make the most sense together. He’s been making films about the dancelike, musical push-pull of his characters since the start of his career. Now, finally, he’s made a film that gives that music meaning.

“I tell myself any experience is better than no experience,” whispers Faye (Mara). “I wanted to live. Sing my song.” It nicely sums up the movie: It’s what the characters, some of them musicians, tell themselves when acting against their principles to get ahead. The subject of the movie is freedom — from industry, from family, from money.

But that’s the bigger picture. More simply, Faye’s line, which comes early in the movie, signals the following: Yes, there are voice-overs. And yes, there are capital-T Themes about capital-E Emotions. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid, wandering images are back, too, enhancing Faye and the other characters’ voice-overs with quiet sublimity. And so is the distinctly weightless visual style Lubezki and Malick have been lending his movies since their first collaboration in 2005, when they chased Q’orianka Kilcher and Colin Farrell through tall grass and trees. These signatures of Malick’s style have all been summed up, by critics and audiences, as examples of Malick’s pretentious airiness, signifiers of his movies’ ponderous inability to do or be about anything substantive or real.

But Malick’s late style gives us everything we need — if we let it. Movies like Song to Song and its closest counterpart, To the Wonder, are the kind of broad romantic dramas we already know by heart. We see on the posters three or four finely hewn Hollywood faces staring longingly and can predict the romantic back-and-forths, map out the appropriate love-shapes (triangles, squares) before the movie even starts. That’s our anchor. Malick’s magic is to unmoor those familiar tropes from the demands of the story, because we already know it. He’s more interested in obsessively studying the particulars: how his characters behave, what language they come up with to express how they feel. His originality is to wonder not only what his characters feel, but how they experience those feelings — hence the sense in his movies that his characters are experiencing every space, gesture, or feeling for the first time, even if we’ve seen them go through it before.

That’s certainly the case for Song to Song, in which the familiar tropes of romance, betrayal, and selling out are all here. Faye, an aspiring musician, leans on the sexual attention of the vibrant, reckless record producer Cook (Fassbender), to get ahead in her career. She gets a record deal — but not before falling in love with Cook’s protegé, BV (Gosling), and not before Cook steals the rights to some of BV’s songs after convincing him to partner up 50–50. These conflicts set things in motion, and open the movie out to a broader world of family, lovers, fellow performers, and a bit of Austin local color. Cook falls for a humble waitress named Rhonda (Portman) and ruins her; BV falls for an unhappy socialite (Blanchett); Faye falls in love with a woman (Marlohe).

It’s new terrain for Malick by virtue of being so expansive and, frankly, eventful. Knight of Cups and The Thin Red Line have big casts, too, but what sets Song to Song apart (besides a more discernible plot) is the sense that these characters are grounded in a fuller social world than the one we’re seeing. These characters have prior lives and loves; they have family drama, financial needs, artistic ambitions. Christian Bale’s screenwriter in Knight of Cups is a blank cipher, by comparison, and so are the lovers at the center of To the Wonder. Only Tree of Life feels as grand as Song to Song, among Malick’s recent work — and Tree of Life takes elaborate flashbacks and CGI dinosaurs to get there.

Malick instills his movies with a fresh-eyed-babe sensibility, a sense of wonder, that though oft-imitated, can never be replicated. The dinosaurs are a tribute to that, and so is every second of Song to Song, which, for the predictability of its romantic and professional conclusions, feels fresh by virtue of uncovering nooks in the story, and in the lives of the characters, that other directors typically overlook — or can’t imagine. That won’t satisfy those of us who want the movie to be an accurate or incisive look at the music industry or Austin scenes, as such, but it does speak to what’s original about his vision. Malick pares the broad strokes of his movies down to the bare essentials — as if, for him, the best part of a movie is what the characters are doing when they aren’t “being in the movie.” What else is there? Life, apparently — to which Malick’s movies, with their radically intimate style, give us a front-row seat.