‘Song to Song’ Review: Terrence Malick’s Romance Is His Best Film Since ‘The Tree of Life’
Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: The new Terrence Malick film opens with a Die Antwoord song.
The past several years have been the most productive of the reclusive filmmaker’s career as he’s been churning out more movies now than in the first three decades of his time as a director, but they’ve also been his most surprising. On the surface his latest feature, Song to Song, bears all the trappings of a typical Malick picture – fluid camera movements, good-looking actors wordlessly circling each other, ponderous dialogue, and only the shred of a narrative. But you also never quite know where his Austin-set romance drama is going to take you.
You might end up in the middle of a mosh pit at a music festival, backstage with a shirtless, wine-guzzling Iggy Pop, or in a gas station parking lot with a crying Rooney Mara. After 44 years and eight feature films (plus one documentary), Malick continues to be one of the most curious filmmakers of our time. Song to Song certainly isn’t for everyone, but it proves Malick is still finding new ways to look at the world, and this time it’s through music.
In 2012 Malick, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a handful of A-listers (including one who’s been cut) went to Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun Fest to make a movie. Song to Song is the result of those festival excursions where the Austin music scene forms the backdrop that holds Malick’s romance together. The film follows Mara’s Faye, an aspiring songwriter (though we never see her do much beyond sing one song and hold a guitar on stage). First she’s cuddling and kissing Michael Fassbender’s Cook, a wealthy and dissatisfied record producer. Then she’s cozying up to Ryan Gosling’s BV, an up-and-coming musician. We see them mingle with the likes of Patti Smith (who has more dialogue than maybe any Malick character in history), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and rapper Big Freedia, then we hop between tense arguments, flirtatious kisses, and sex scenes in lavish homes.
That does sound like Malick’s Knight of Cups and To the Wonder, but Song to Song feels more grounded and more assured than those previous works. If those were audacious experiments in a stream-of-consciousness style, Song to Song is the more realized version of both. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still hardly any plot in this movie; but the organic, free-flowing style Malick’s been playing with works best here. Part of that is because his wandering eye better suits a film with a larger cast of characters, and partially because of the role the soundtrack plays. Angsty punk songs by Plasmatics, mournful ballads by Lykke Li (who also plays one of BV’s exes), frantic hip hop tracks by Big Freedia, and classic doo-wop hits like Del Shannon's "Runaway," breathe an energy into the film and create transitions in mood. When the film begins to veer too far in one direction – the first 40 or so minutes feel fairly repetitive – a song jolts onto the soundtrack to take you somewhere new.
Watching Song to Song feels like traveling through a woman’s diary as she remembers past and present loves, or listening to an old mixtape from an ex. We drift through Faye’s thoughts as she ponders each of her lovers – her sexually turbulent relationship with Cook, her sweet, playful love with BV, and in Malick’s first queer romance, her tender connection with a woman played by Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall). We also see the world through BV and Cook’s eyes as the latter begins an affair with Cate Blanchett’s widow and the former ensnares Natalie Portman’s small-town teacher. But unlike much of Malick’s previous work, this film follows a female protagonist. After watching the sad, lonely men of Knight of Cups and To the Wonder grow bored with the beautiful women around them, it’s refreshing to hear a woman’s perspective on heartbreak, grief, and desire.
There’s also something about Song to Song that suggests maybe Malick has come close to finding whatever he’s been searching for. Since The New World, his films have consistently followed characters drumming their fingers, casting their eyes to the stars, and asking a higher power for guidance. The voiceovers in Song to Song are less questioning and more about internal reflection. Mara and Gosling’s narration function as recollections of memories, like flipping through a photo album and recalling the story behind each picture, before a drifting thought pulls your mind elsewhere.
The power of the movie lies in those snapshots, moments that could be a page ripped out of anyone’s story – the moment when you found out a loved one died, when you first locked eyes with someone, or a perfect romance became tainted with doubt. Malick has found a way to translate how a familiar song has the ability to transport you back to a particular time and conjure a specific set of emotions. Whatever he’s been exploring over the past few years pays off here. Song to Song is far from his strongest film, but it’s his best and most exciting work since The Tree of Life. If you’re willing to practice some patience and let Malick’s images wash over you, you might just find something magnificent here.