Speaking of the films of Terrence Malick is difficult in the context of a regular film review, where you talk about things such as structure, character development, and emotion. Whilst these things are most certainly present in Malick’s films, the way they are presented is incomparable and singular to his own filmic language, which exists in its own world separate to the world of regular filmmaking, oft imitated, never bettered. Malick’s films exist as visual epic poems, treatises to the expanses of human experience, at once scathing indictments and indignant justifications of their own characters.
Song to Song, Malick’s latest film (as of this being written), deals with the intricate love lives of mainly four players in the Austin movie scene, wildly empty producer Cook (Michael Fassbender, another electric performance), his secretary and aspiring musician Faye (Rooney Mara, mesmerising), up and coming artist BV (Ryan Gosling), and Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a local waitress seduced by Cook.
The film, whilst operating in Malick’s usual contemporary style of poetic voiceover narrating the emotional subtext of mainly physical scenes and relationships as they play out, is perhaps Malick’s most narrative feature since 2005’s The New World, with clearly defined character relationships, and a very clear timeline of events. If anything, the film is at times a little too didactic for its own good. Malick, with long time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, pushes some of the characters towards archetypes, without ever going so far as to make them at all predictable, or any less human.
Malick’s most defining achievements are his longtime strengths: love without forgiveness, destruction without malice. Emotion and relation in the world of Malick’s films take on their own lives, never truly possessed by any individuals, but moving them throughout their lives. Some are more susceptible to the powers of light, some to darkness, but no character is ever allowed to stay at one end of the spectrum for too long. Malick’s characters, as usual, spend their time and inner monologues trying to reconcile their positions in life and relationships with others with their own preconceived notions of purity and experience. Some of what they say is shallow justification, and some of what they say are agonising screams to be heard. Again, Malick’s strength is that these voices are not put on moral pedestals or viewed as base thoughts, they are presented as flawed human thoughts. They are our thoughts, sometimes, too.
The morality of relationships and fidelity is a big focus of Song to Song, with the overcomplicated love triangle taking on an organic shape of its own around the middle of the film. Cameos by musicians such as Lykke Li, Flea, Iggy Pop, and most notably, Patti Smith, add weight and gravity to the discussion of love. Patti Smith’s conversation with Faye towards the end of the film regarding her relationship with BV, perhaps the most poignant of the film, suggests that Patti Smith, as an established and world weary figure, is capable of a purity and worldly knowledge the younger characters are too blinded by their own youth to see.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara steal every scene they walk into, Fassbender with the energy of a school of sharks, Mara without the slightest hint of effort. Ryan Gosling continues to give performances of no small charisma and depth, and a wide eyed Natalie Portman is perhaps the closest conduit we have as an audience, a bystander swept up by the sexual energy and power of the Austin music scene.
Overall, to discuss themes and structure within a film of Terrence Malick is almost beside the point. We get an insight into characters that is rare in modern film, and these characters explode on the screen in an achingly honest and humanly complex fashion. Understanding what they are experiencing is never as spectacular as understand that they are experiencing. The greatest spectacle Malick has to offer is the experience of life itself, and it is a gift all too rare in film, and the world at large.