By now, anyone willing to take whatever filmic journey Terrence Malick has in store for them is pretty committed. And those that genuinely value his work–or at least the aesthetic–never want to see him take another twenty year reprieve (as he did in the period extending from 1978’s Days of Heaven to 1998’s The Thin Red Line) ever again. Like Woody Allen, however, Malick can be very hit or miss when in a state of prolificness.
Song to Song, a somewhat surprising follow-up for Ryan Gosling after the quick and profuse La La Land accolades, is no different from much of Malick’s recent work, at least in terms of either being panned or serving as a source of polarization among critics and fans. One thing that can’t be argued, however, is that Song to Song is at least a step up from 2015’s Knight of Cups (don’t trust Roger Ebert’s 4 out of 4 review of it, or anything else).
Somewhat surprisingly, Malick has been one of the few auteurs to set the backdrop of his narrative against Austin, Texas. In spite of its ever-static popularity with artists–particularly musicians–Malick has been one of the few willing to shoot such a dramatic saga against its multi-tonal skies and sweeping landscapes. Perhaps his time as a youth spent at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School triggered the need to put his kinship with the city to the test. And oh, how he delivers on his rapport. While Malick might never be known as a great creator of natural-sounding dialogue (though there’s, without fail, an aphorism or several to be gleaned from one of the characters), he always evokes feelings of lust and appreciation for the cinematography of his settings.
With the backdrop of the Austin music scene a constant throughout the film (hence the “organic” appearances of the likes of Lykke Li, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Flea and Anthony Kiedis), Malick weaves the tale of overlapping love triangles featuring BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara) at the center of each. The two meet at a party (during which Faye is wearing a very unflattering blonde wig) thrown by local music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender). BV is a musician Cook is interested in taking to the next level, while Faye has been his receptionist since she was roughly seventeen years old. Their attraction to one another presents something of a problem to the morally pliable Faye, who admits from the outset of the film that, “I used to need to have violent sex to feel alive. Every kiss felt like half of what it should be.” And yet, meeting BV imbues her with a sense of calm she never knew she could have.
Malick brings back Natalie Portman (also a cast member in Knight of Cups) to reprise a sort of Where The Heart Is role in the form of a waitress named Rhonda–doe-eyed, and willing to take any kindness she can get. Which she does from Cook, who appears jealous of the relationship between BV and Faye, wanting one of his own to top theirs. Cook thus literally extracts her from the restaurant she’s working in (she wanted to continue being a teacher, but claims there are no jobs in the field) and ends up marrying her and buying her mother, Miranda (Holly Hunter), a house–the whole nine yards.
Nonetheless, the temptation to meddle with the rapport between BV and Faye persists, with Cook deciding to fuck BV over on songwriting credits and offer Faye a recording contract (mercifully, we never have to hear Rooney Mara sing at any point). As the two drift apart largely as a result of Faye’s dalliance with Cook, BV lets her go in favor of Amanda (Cate Blanchett, also a repeat muse from Knight of Cups). As an older woman who more than “somewhat” bears a resemblance to BV’s mother, Amanda serves as the distraction BV needs masquerading as the true love he didn’t know he was biding time to meet while with Faye. And yet, the lies we tell ourselves can be so convincing that BV can’t see just how ephemerally Oedipal Amanda is going to be.
Meanwhile, Faye can’t help but have epiphanies of her own, about both the haste with which she allowed herself to lose BV and the cavernousness of pursuing fame for her music. It’s essentially, as she says, “Running around, trying to be somebody. Snatching at life.” Faye’s irksome question, “What if I don’t become an artist?” also proves that her reasoning for being so involved in music doesn’t necessarily stem from as pure of a place as BV’s. It’s in these moments of discovering what she really wants–love, not false art–that she speaks to BV in her head, insisting, “I won’t stop loving you. I don’t think I can.”
BV, too, can’t deny that his life has been empty without Faye, a realization that becomes all the more clear when he re-encounters her at a party (one of the many instances in the film of Malick’s skewed timeline of events). When they reunite, Faye has an entirely new aspect of BV’s character to admire, musing, “It was like a new paradise: forgiveness.” And maybe this is what true love is, as they always say–the ability to bury the hatchet as opposed to wielding it against the object of your desire’s skull. In fact, Song to Song is very much a film that espouses the notion of returning to your ex, the one you thought you could do without by going through other people as a diversion.
At its core, Song to Song touts that you can try to treat others disposably in a sexual or romantic capacity all you want, but the one that really got to you will never go away. BV remarks, “You’re the only one I love. Even after all we’ve been through.” He and Faye sort of like the Beyonce and Jay-Z of the Austin music world. Or maybe the Shania Twain and Robert “Mutt” Lange. In any case, if impressionistic stylings and advocation for the reunion of two lovers who put each other through hell isn’t your thing, this latest from Malick should probably be avoided.