By Tyler Obropta, Staff Writer
If you’ve never seen a Terrence Malick film before, then do yourself a favor and don’t make Song to Song your first exposure to him.
Song to Song is late-career Malick in peak form, a gorgeous montage of life and love that feels more often like hooking a movie screen up to someone’s REM sleep than a traditional film.
Somewhere between 2005’s The New World and 2011’s Tree of Life, Malick got more experimental, and like a hot air balloon pilot intent on clearing the ionosphere, he started cutting whatever tethers he could, starting with story, character and structure.
There’s a curious shape to Malick’s formlessness, something frustrating and infinitely fascinating about his attempts to transcend story. When in Song to Song, Rooney Mara’s character Faye feeds a pair of swans under a bridge, you don’t immediately think that what you’re seeing is important. Malick’s films don’t work that way. They don’t follow those rules. The swans never play into the plot at all, never amount to anything resembling narrative importance. But Malick wanted you to see something in her feeding the swans, just as he wants you to take something away from all the up-close sex, wide-lensed party sequences and achingly beautiful nature shots his work has become known for.
His films are the closest modern America has to poetic cinema, and like most poetry, they are probably best consumed with either unwavering academic, analytical devotion, or with a loose mind and a healthy amount of strong alcohol.
Song to Song is a bad introduction to Malick for the same reasons that ghost peppers are a bad introduction to spicy food. As the product of a decade of experimenting with form, Song to Song is potent and intense. It’s intensely subversive too, so much so that it’ll alienate any newcomers to the director.
Malick’s films are never focused on plot, so I’ll be brief — Song to Song follows Faye, an aspiring musician, as she has sexual relationships with Ryan Gosling’s talented lyricist BV and Michael Fassbender’s cold, driven music producer Cook, all in her attempts to settle into normalcy, find love, and find a career, and it’s all set against the backdrop of the 2012 SXSW festival.
But Song to Song so neglects its characters and plot that I had to Google-search who these people were. I had no idea that Gosling’s character’s name is BV, or that Fassbender’s is Cook, or that Gosling and Faye work as lyricists. Instead, the actors in Malick’s films are props. They’re just pretty faces helping to sell the movie to audiences. But there’s something fun in watching Fassbender, Gosling and Mara prance carelessly around SXSW — Malick shot on location, with these high-profile Hollywood actors mingling with the crowds and dancing around on stages. Often, they don’t even get dialogue, and their communication must be purely grounded in a single look.
Mara’s deep, expressive eyes adapt well to the wordless world of Malick, and Fassbender’s presence alone is often enough to lend gravitas to a scene. He doesn’t have to say a word. And as for Gosling, he isn’t singing and dancing his way through this one, but God, he is so damn charming.
Because everybody in the industry wants to be in a Terrence Malick film, Natalie Portman enters as a Texan waitress named Rhonda, Southern twang and all. Holly Hunter, here underused (but with Malick, every actor usually is), plays Rhonda’s concerned mother. Cate Blanchett appears late in the game as another suitor to Gosling. And those more well-versed in music than I surely would recognize Florence Welch, The Black Lips, Iggy Pop, and many more artists cameoing as themselves. And Patti Smith, playing herself, actually gets a significant amount of screen time!
The wild, excessive, fuck-the-system energy of SXSW, with the charm of the actors and the inventiveness of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography ensures the film never gets boring. But nothing can stop the film from being frustrating. The constantly alternating voice-overs never have anything interesting to say because what actors say in Malick films almost never matters. He has no problem drowning their voices out with loud music or cutting lengthy segments out of conversations, but somehow we’re expected to pay attention to a weightless, airy voice-over from Rhonda, Cook or BV, all of whom we barely know.
The aimlessness of Malick’s style, most apparent in the voiceovers, editing and pacing — the film ends about seven times — sinks in when you learn that the characters you’re watching, the sounds you’re hearing and the images you’re being shown are all subservient to the tone. And that’s a dealbreaker for some.
But Malick’s style, if you’ve seen enough Malick to appreciate it, carries a sense of the transcendent. Characters laugh without jokes being told and dance without music being played, as if some cosmic joy is tickling their souls.
If you can speak the language of Terrence Malick, his latest film is a meal of delicious surrealism that delights in slapping convention across the face. But dear God, don’t walk into this expecting anything normal. Terry doesn’t do normal.