** out of ****
(for some sexuality, nudity, drug use, and strong language)
Released: March 17, 2016 limited; expands in April
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe
Terrence Malick used to make movies. Now he makes liturgies.
Ever since his cosmic masterpiece The Tree of Life in 2011, Malick has progressively moved from narrative to contemplative cinema, foregoing plot for philosophical impressionism – all imbued with spiritual crisis and Christian longing at its existential core.
In liturgical style, he ponders an overarching theme through a collection of thoughts, meditations, poems, even prayers, each delivered through internal monologues of characters or whispering exchanges between them. And like any liturgy, each movie creates a pensive atmosphere to ponder and reflect. Not every thought will resonate with every viewer but some inevitably do, even cutting you to your core.
Malick’s two most recent films have garnered diminishing returns for most, but I was completely captivated and challenged by To The Wonder (his exploration of fidelity and infidelity, both between husband & wife and God & humanity/bride) and Knight of Cups (which wrestled with identity and purpose, through the lens of Hollywood fame).
Now, Malick examines all of those things in Song to Song, but even for the staunchest Malick acolyte this feels like leftovers; wistful panoramic footage in search of a movie. The biggest sin here isn’t continuing to follow his liturgical muse; it’s that Malick has nothing new to say or, for that matter, barely anything to say at all. This is for Malick completists but no one else.
Playing out against the backdrop of the Austin, TX music scene, the setting adds little distinction or specificity; this could really take place anywhere. Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Fassbender find themselves in a love triangle, with Mara’s Faye as the Eve to Ryan’s Adam and Fassbender the music producer serpent offering Faye the apple of temptation. Faye also struggles with her disobedience towards her father and how he raised her, how she must be a disappointment to him, even as he only continues to show her love (another clear Christian/God metaphor).
Through this, Malick again explores fidelity and infidelity, the transient nature of human love and affection (both between people and passions), but it’s only considered in the broadest strokes. Nothing here is particularly profound or even personal, expressed merely at the most rudimentary level.
As a consequence, even as other women weave into the mix for these men (Natalie Portman for Fassbender, Cate Blanchett for Gosling), there’s scarcely any discernable growth, change, or arc for any of these characters – just banal meandering – as all of these people whisper inside their heads while circling each other in sparse rooms or golden hour exteriors, occasionally giving in to their lusts.
The actors themselves seem to be grasping at straws, often appearing unsure of who they are or what they should be doing, awkwardly improvising in the hopes that Malick has a vision for whatever the hell they’re doing. He doesn’t.
To its credit, Song to Song does finally muster some thought-provoking examinations in its final half-hour, particularly as it reaches for redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Stark insights like “the world wants to be deceived” or Gosling singing “take your burden to the Lord and leave it there” build to humble confessions, such as when Faye admits “I took sex – a gift – and I played with it. I played with the flame of life.”
Their longing for absolution, and a return to Paradise (rooted in true love), does pack a punch, but the ninety minute wind-up leading to it lacks the depth necessary to land that punch with any sense of a stinging, lingering wallop.