Movie Review – Song to Song
Terrence Malick is the Oscar-nominated writer-director who has been recognized for his work on The Thin Red Line (1998) and The Tree of Life (2011). He’s now 73 years-old, and over the course of his 45-year career, which started in 1973, he’s now made nine features as director. This is opposed to Steven Spielberg who started his career around the same time and is now on his 30th feature. Malick, however, took a 20-year hiatus between his second and third feature where he produced no content. George Lucas took a 20-year hiatus from directing as well but he still kept producing through the 80’s and 90’s, which maintained his relationship with Hollywood. Malick instead broke away from Hollywood and stayed away, living his life, which mostly has been in Texas with occasional stops in Europe, specifically France.
When he began directing again in 1998, he started developing his own style that was very unique. He would shoot a lot of footage, almost documentary-like. His camera would constantly be moving and free floating with a focus on the sky, nature and sensuality. He then slowly leaned away from linear narrative and more toward transcendence. With a resistance to highlight dialogue but instead hushed voice-overs that would bolster emotional states and philosophical ideas rather than an A-to-B story.
Five years ago, Malick released To the Wonder (2012), which was his first film set in the present-day. With the exception of his IMAX nature flick, Voyage of Time (2016), this movie is the third and could be considered the cap on a trilogy set in the modern era, made in his current style. There’s a lot that this movie has in common with the others in that trilogy. It’s as critically divisive if not more so, but in reality this one is the best one of them all.
Malick’s home is in Austin, Texas, so for this film, he infiltrated the Austin City Limits music festival that happened in October of 2012. The characters are connected to the recording industry. As such, Malick incorporates real music artists playing versions of themselves like Lykke Li or Patti Smith or just captured in genuine, backstage moments like Iggy Pop or Flea, but the movie isn’t necessarily about music. Scenes capture concert footage and the characters indulging in songs, but it’s nowhere near as musical as one might expect. Yet, this is okay because it makes for a nice background and the true focus is strong enough.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Carol) stars as Faye, an aspiring musician who started as a teenage receptionist at a record label under a music producer-turned-executive named Cook, played by Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs). Cook is a sexy hedonist who uses people for his purposes either professionally or personally, which only hurts or disillusions those people. At one of Cook’s parties, Faye meets BV, played by Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson and La La Land), a fellow up-and-comer in the business who is a refreshing alternative to Cook. The film follows their romantic pursuits as they drift back-and-forth, including Cook to Rhonda, played by Natalie Portman (Black Swan and Jackie), a former teacher-turned-waitress who is pure of heart but due to issues in her past makes her not as strong as BV.
As always, Malick’s cinematography with the aide of 3-time Oscar winner, Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant and Gravity) is the most gorgeous camerawork of the year. If it’s not recognized for awards, it would be a crime. Gorgeous might even be too weak a word. Malick’s images are beyond stunning. That coupled with the editing here is also beyond stunning. It could seem choppy as it was reported that there was an eight-hour cut of this film that’s been reduced to two hours, and a lot of this can feel compressed in that way, but Malick does manage to maintain a good pace, flow and rhythm.
The aesthetics are sumptuous and opulent. Faye works as a kind of real estate agent showing off wealthy properties, which gives her access to those wealthy properties. Malick chooses to stage most of her scenes in those properties, many of them glass boxes atop high-rises. Cook is a record executive who simply owns a lot of wealthy properties often with swimming pools or else stays in five-star hotels. Malick chooses to stage most of his scenes in those high-end hotel rooms.
Malick does juxtapose that opulence with scenes of Faye and BV in their home lives with their families, indicating that the opulence is not what they’re accustomed to having. They’re rooted in more down-to-Earth things and environments. It therefore makes sense that the film ends with them literally getting down to the bare Earth.
Faye and BV also deal with potential issues. We see Faye briefly with her father who is concerned but proud of her. She gets to a point where she thinks he isn’t proud because she hasn’t achieved what he also couldn’t achieve. BV also has a powerful scene with his father with whom he disconnected. BV even has a scene with his brothers that feels like a sequel to the dynamic between the brothers in The Tree of Life. Brother as well as father-son issues were also crucial in Knight of Cups (2016), the second in Malick’s trilogy.
What’s also incredible is the queerness weaved into this film. At first, Cook flies Faye and BV down to Mexico in his private jet. It’s mainly just fun times. Faye is framed out in several scenes, and something almost homoerotic builds between the two men, BV and Cook. It’s brief as Cook is framed out and the romance waivers from a potential and palpable threesome, which never materializes, to Faye and BV paired with Cook as the jealous third wheel.
When all of them start drifting, Faye meets a French woman, played by Bérénice Marlohe, on the streets of Austin, next to a food truck actually. What doesn’t materialize between the two men in Mexico does materialize between the two women. It’s funny because Cate Blanchett appears briefly in this film as she does in Malick’s Knight of Cups and as the narrator in Voyage of Time. What’s funny is that Blanchett went to co-star in Carol where she and Mara play lesbian lovers.
Malick who isn’t gay is able to generate more heat between Mara and Marlohe than openly gay filmmaker Todd Haynes does between Mara and Blanchett in Carol. All the actresses give great performances but the sensuality and the passion were stronger felt here in Malick’s film, mainly because sensuality is his focus, whereas Haynes had other things to juggle.
For a film that is lacking in narrative, Malick manages some narrative surprises. Both those surprises involve the teacher played by Portman. The surprises included my reaction to her and the other characters. Any kind of emotional reactions to the characters in the other films in Malick’s trilogy, specifically Ben Affleck and Christian Bale, were lacking. I felt nothing for Affleck and Bale’s characters in fact. I did feel and in reality I did connect with the characters here, which is the benchmark for a good or great film.
Rated R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.
Available on DVD / VOD.