Milo Garner reviews Terrence Malick’s latest.
The cinema of Terrence Malick finds itself in an interesting position. Once the blue-eyed boy of Hollywood, Malick garnered intense critical praise for his 1973 feature debut, Badlands, and his masterful sophomore Days of Heaven. He also gained the allure of mystery thanks to his apparent disappearance following the release of the second film in 1978. A media-shy man to this day, this ‘disappearance’ was more the culmination of various failed projects than a fanciful journey to Assyria (one of many proposed explanations for his vanishing); but nonetheless, the legend around him was too stern to topple.
His return to Hollywood in 1998 was, therefore, an event of no small fanfare. Malick, welcomed back as an old master, was held in equal esteem to Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, who were also returning to the fold after a long absence. Like Kubrick, his latest film (for Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, for Malick The Thin Red Line) would go on to meet lukewarm response from critics who didn’t quite understand his intention or successes. Despite an enormous cast of familiar faces and some of the best action scenes ever shot for a war film, Malick’s style alienated audiences still buzzing from Spielberg’s more conventional Saving Private Ryan. This is unsurprising – any film that would cut its leading man (in Adrien Brody) down to a barely-featured supporting character in post-production is doing something atypical in Hollywood’s world, and that rarely receives a glowing response.
This was the third step of what would become a clear artistic trajectory for Malick – from his first feature onwards, each film had become a little more removed from conventionality, stripping back the narrative and becoming ever more experimental. Thanks to his reputation, Malick could do this with Hollywood budgets and A-list casts. Following The Thin Red Line came 2005’s The New World, the apotheosis of Malick’s output (though it received mixed reviews). In 2011 he released The Tree of Life, which divided audiences but was met with surprising positivity from critics. In this film, Malick posed many of the recurring existential questions in his work once again, through an autobiographical, narratively minimalist lens. These traits would come to define his later work: 2012’s To The Wonder, 2015’s Knight of Cups, and his most recent film, Song to Song.
Malick’s most recent films push the minimalist narrative style of The Tree of Life to its logical conclusions, stripping back not only the filmic content but the methodology behind it. They use minimal scripts, if any; prefer a constantly rolling camera that might capture any remarkable image Malick’s regular cinematographer, the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, might spy; and employ the use of GoPro cameras to truly embrace the freedom of form offered by digital cinematography. While these post-Tree of Life films might have ushered in a new form of cinematic language for Malick, albeit one based heavily in what came before, they have also marked the end of his critical adoration. The Thin Red Line and The New World suffered some criticism, but they were generally well-regarded; his latest trilogy of films has not been so lucky, averaging around 48% on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and with even less impressive box office results. The reasons why are self-evident – Malick’s cinema finds itself experimental, even avant-garde, yet caught in the precepts of conventional filmmaking. As such his late-period films are often criticised more for what they lack rather than their actual content. To quote Rooney Mara’s character in Song to Song, they’re ‘reaching for air.’ This isn’t to say these films have not faced valid criticism, nor that they are ignored masterpieces – they certainly make up Malick’s weakest output – but they are often considered in the wrong context.
In assessing Song to Song, this context must be properly understood: it is an experimental expression of the themes that have defined Malick’s corpus so far. These themes often revolve around Biblical concepts of innocence and corruption, and are linked heavily to the philosophy of Heidegger. (Prior to his filmmaking days Malick was himself a budding philosopher, and he translated one of Heidegger’s works in the late 60s.) As such, the idea of Malick’s filmography as ‘Heideggerian cinema’ has been considered by various academics, including Stanley Cavell in his 1979 The World Viewed, and though it is wise not to consider his films solely through a philosophical framework in this manner (as warned by Simon Critchley in his 2005 essay on The Thin Red Line), it is a useful angle to consider. For example, Christopher Barnett (writing for his Theology + Movies blog) notes that in his late-period films ‘Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world… he is trying to film ‘affect’’. Barnett here marries the Heideggerian concept of being-in-the-world with Malick’s cinematic attempts to create a shared experience between the audience and the film, and as such offers an interesting perspective on Malick’s recent output. If To The Wonder was lacking in certain elements, particularly in its needlessly murky narrative, it can be said that it communicates the simple (perhaps overly so) sense of love at its core. While Knight of Cups might fall into incoherence, it does transmit the notion of a man losing his sense of self to mindless hedonism. Song to Song, which was shot soon after Knight of Cups, shares many similarities with those films (capping the ‘Twirling Trilogy’, so-dubbed for its often-spinning characters and camera), but also manages to come together as a more cohesive work. It is the best of Malick’s output since 2011’s The Tree of Life. Given that his next film, Radegund, will return to a more conventional filmmaking technique (with a script!), it serves as an excellent send-off for Malick’s sojourn in the avant-garde.
Song to Song, formerly named Lawless, then Weightless (both apt titles in and of themselves) likely derives its title from the Song of Songs, unique among Biblical scripture for its celebration of sexual love. Set in the Austin music scene (though not particularly about the Austin music scene), it considers the yearning for the authentic self, for love, within an extreme environment that begets distraction and mindless hedonism – to ‘live from song to song; from kiss to kiss’. As the protagonist, young musician Faye (Rooney Mara) says in voiceover, ‘I wanted experience. I told myself any experience is better than no experience.’ Words like this reek of a youthful ennui Malick is attempting to defeat. ‘I wanted to live, sing my song’, she later continues – again, the essential search for meaning that is key to any Malick film takes centre stage here.
To frame this he creates a dichotomy often seen in his filmography – innocence and corruption. The former is presented in the love between Faye and Ryan Gosling’s hopeful musician (credited as BV – only Faye is named during the film itself). Their time together plays as a sort of nostalgic memory, and their love is presented almost entirely playfully. This grounds the couple in a way that felt missing in To The Wonder and Knight of Cups. While some of their (improvised) dialogue might be a little stiff, Mara and Gosling have excellent physical chemistry, even creating a few genuinely funny moments, rare in Malick’s canon. But their characters do not extend much beyond the basic descriptions we can establish from their first appearance – they are both aspiring musicians trying to make it in the world of song. That’s about it. Rex Reed, writing for the New York Observer (and who has described ‘suffering through a Terrence Malick film nothing short of waterboarding in Afghanistan’) describes it well – ‘none of them play roles. They play presences’. While he is denigrating the film in writing this, he ironically confirms the compliment Barnett offers (in reference to To The Wonder): ‘indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters, but rather stand-ins for the viewers themselves’. Ever since the various voiceovers in The Thin Red Line began to intermingle it became clear that Malick was aiming less to draw out specific characters and more to communicate universal ideas through ciphers on the screen. While it might be unfair to say they have no character at all, Song to Song is certainly not a character study.
If this couple is Malick’s Eden, then we must look for the snake – and he is not hidden. Michael Fassbender (credited as Cook) appears in the very first shot of Song to Song, his head coming into view as a door creeps open, while the light outside illuminates Faye – an excellent visual metaphor for his consuming influence before the audience is aware of either character’s relation. He is the demon, the devil, the Mephistopheles; he hosts a party for ‘the Doctor’ early in the film, resting in an urn by the pool. In a film so semiotic it’s difficult not to consider his name might have been Faustus. Malick instructed Fassbender to reflect Milton’s Satan, and this he did. ‘His hands were in everything’, says Faye in voiceover, as Cook offers the world to BV – ‘it’s all for sale, all of it… it’s a stage show’. Unlike Mara and Gosling, Fassbender is given a character to play, and his performance is excellent. He commands any scene he is in, and perfectly personifies the dark temptation he represents. Doing every kind of esoteric drug (sold to him by a distinctly reptilian-looking dealer) he offers a taste of what life could be like and corrupts all he touches. To Faye he teases success; to BV he gives it, only to take it away; and his most sinister conquest is over Natalie Portman’s ex-teacher waitress (credited as Rhonda), who he whisks away to a life of sin and debauchery. He even looks directly at the camera for a moment shortly after his introduction – he is metaphysical in our world and his.
Towards the middle of the film, by which point his relationship with Rhonda had become less a liberation and more a cage, the film cuts to a scene utterly unique in Malick’s cinema – the screen goes dark and the audience are shown unclear galactic imagery, while Cook speaks: ‘I was once like you. I didn’t know what I know now’. It cuts again to some kind of obscure and violent archive footage from what appears to be the 1920s*, and he continues, ‘to think what I once was… what I am now’. This abstraction of a character’s psyche (and perhaps origin – fallen from the stars) is something totally new in a film by Malick, and it can only be its abstruse nature that has left it unmentioned in most mainstream reviews.
Though Cook represents a corruption of innocence, it must be mentioned that, as in the rest of Malick’s filmography, absolute innocence is never attainable. In The Thin Red Line the paradise of Guadalcanal is betrayed by skulls lining the mise-en-scene among the native people; in The New World the violence of the Americans comes to match that of the Europeans; and here we see Faye has already been seduced by Cook before meeting BV (though the linearity of the story as presented can be questioned – some critics have created a marginally different chronology). Instead of maintaining the status quo at the start of his films, its characters must hope beyond it – in Song to Song this hope manifests itself as ‘a simple life’, to return from the alienating high life to a sense of authentic reality. During the film its protagonists spend most of their time in ludicrously expensive apartments walled with glass; in its final moments they discover ‘a new paradise’ closer to nature. Trite, perhaps, but effective. Another key theme is family – parental failure overshadows many of the primary characters (perhaps reflecting Malick’s own relationship with his father). This is even enunciated in a conversation between Cook and a prostitute – ‘what really scares you?’ he asks. ‘That I don’t know my family,’ she responds.
The narrative of the film under these themes is simple, though the elliptical editing (a term used consistently across criticism of this film) offers a sense of mild ambiguity. In short, Faye and BV meet at a party and become lovers, despite Faye’s extant ‘romance’ (as she puts it) with Cook. BV and Cook nevertheless become friends, though Cook knows the precarious nature of the arrangement (BV is unaware of the on-off fling Faye and Cook are still entertaining). Their friendship peaks on a trip to Mexico, ending on a literal high as they glide through the interior of a zero gravity plane. Following this, Cook seduces Rhonda and betrays BV by stealing the copyrights to his music, and then offers Faye a contract, while BV has a wonderful sub-story in meeting up with an old flame, Lykke Li (credited as Lykke). This sequence is lovely, the highlighted with a montage of them dancing to du-wop in the night.
Lykke Li’s inclusion is itself one of many music-related cameos in the film, which include those featured for only a moment, like Neon Indian or Iggy Pop, and a longer part by Patti Smith, who acts like a wise maternal figure for Faye. Many more, such as a scene including Fleet Foxes, met the cutting room floor, but this is to be expected in a Malick film. After Lykke leaves, Faye admits her affair to BV and they both end up in separate relationships: BV with Cate Blanchett’s character (credited as Amanda) and Faye with Bérénice Marlohe’s (credited as Zoey). Both essentially function to prove that BV and Faye should be with each other and not others, but this is not entirely effective. Faye’s relationship with Zoey is shown in exclusively sexual terms, contrasting with the playful elements between Faye and BV, while Amanda is barely a character at all, registering as a stand-in with nothing to represent. Perhaps in the initial 8-hour cut she had a larger role, and it was necessary for the film’s structure for her to remain in the shorter cut, but as it stands she had little purpose or point. The remainder of the film follows the fate of Rhonda and Cook, and the make-up of BV and Faye. Despite its complexity of form, the story itself is a rather typical love-triangle romance, and though weak in elements is certainly a step up from the narrative slew that was Knight of Cups.
The form itself is where more interest lies. The most noticeable element of the film is its voiceover, a firm Malick trademark, though again distinct from Knight of Cups. While that film often recited high-minded Biblical passages, the voiceover here is more concerned with the thoughts and yearnings of its primary characters. As Carson Lund puts in writing for Slant, the film is ‘grounded more in real-life phenomena than abstract concepts’. The voiceovers for the various characters often flow into one another (similar to The Thin Red Line), but rather than a detriment this matches Malick’s aims – a universal message, a sense of meaning all people search for rather than that of a specific character he has contrived. Just as the voiceovers overlap, so do the various locations, with Malick’s harsh editing leaving many scenes cut down to seconds and some locations only glimpsed at. Given how uneconomical this method is, the result is unfamiliar cinematically, though not as bewildering as might be imagined. The editing is elliptical, but the dots can be joined without much difficulty. Due to the non-textual nature of many of the scenes (and the voiceover typically not being overly descriptive) the visuals are heavily relied upon to tell what story there is to tell, and they do this through the film. The standout is the trip to Mexico: at this point Faye falls in love with BV, and the camera is trained on them for a short montage, but pulls back to reveal, for just a moment, Cook. A few shots later and a low angle shot has him dominating the frame, and shots immediately following this place him apart from the pair but looking on. The voiceover confirms his envy: ‘they have a beauty in their life that makes me ugly, a joy’.
Song to Song itself is far from ugly. Beside its seraphic cast are some of Lubezki’s finest images, captured almost entirely with wide lenses and natural light in day scenes – as Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, Malick ‘embraces fluidity as a visual principle’. Flowing and panning, rarely still, Lubezki is always looking to capture details in the frame that aren’t necessarily the subject of the scene; the camerawork could probably serve as content enough for a film, if Malick’s documentary Voyage of Time didn’t already prove that. A recurring image from Knight of Cups, another beautiful film, are the party scenes, neon and glowing. One of the highlights of Malick’s departure from history to the present (or close enough) is being able to see Jack Fisk (his regular production designer, a veteran of most David Lynch films) craft such modern spectacles.
The music of Song to Song, predictably, is also notable. The soundtrack combines features typical of a Malick film, including the likes of Mahler, Ravel, and Debussy, while introducing contemporary popular music to the mix, such as Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees, and Julianna Barwick (a perfect fit for Malick’s filmography). These newer songs work surprisingly well, often giving scenes a burst of life sometimes lacking in Malick’s recent films – an aesthetic dominated by expensive-and-empty apartments can begin to feel sterile when silent. It isn’t faultless, however – for whatever reason the film opens with Die Antwoord, ruining an otherwise wonderfully captured mosh-scene. Does Malick think this is what the kids are into, or is Never Le Nkemise 2 next to Arvo Pärt on his favourite playlist? The former seems more likely, and it was a significant misjudgement – luckily the song was cut under half a minute in. On the other hand, there are plenty of musical flourishes that suggest Malick still has the ear for it, just about. One such is the use of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre during a montage wherein Cook seduces Rhonda into marriage. The mischievous bent of the piece suits Cook perfectly, all the while prefiguring Rhonda’s future, and complementing the playful rhythm of the scene at hand. Another is in using Meredith Monk’s minimalist and unnerving ‘Do You Be’ while Cook shows his first moment of sadness, or alienation, before falling back into hedonism. It is one of a few powerful moments that are above most of the film, but serve to elevate the whole.
Beyond the music itself, Song to Song is also about musicians, and set in a particular musical scene – but at the same time, it isn’t at all. Despite featuring many musicians (and not featuring more), the film has a mostly superficial relation to music and the music industry itself. Lund suggests that the fact we see Faye playing an instrument for only fleeting moments could suggest ‘a relative lack of productivity that isn’t so implausible in the image-first indie scene’, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the film to suggest it is making any comment on the ‘indie scene’ whatsoever. Cook’s statement, ‘you think you can get here [the top] without getting your hands dirty?’ could also be interpreted as an indictment against the music industry, but it seems more likely Malick is commenting on powerful places of influence in general, rather than the specifics of making records and playing shows. Eric Kohl put it best in his review for IndieWire: Malick is ‘peering beyond the rough exterior of the music scene to explore the psychology of the people addicted to its extremes’. Essentially, the musical context is only there to provide an extreme set of circumstances in which to place the mostly anonymous characters – much like the Hollywood executive setting of Knight of Cups had precious little to say about that system. These films simply aren’t making statements of that kind. As such, accusations such as Justin Chang’s suggestion in the LA Times that ‘beauty and redundancy have become the defining hallmarks of Malick’s filmmaking’ are granted some currency, given the essential superficiality at the centre of Song to Song. That this setting effectively serves its main purpose mitigates this issue, however.
Towards the end of the film, Faye reads from William Blake’s ‘The Divine Image’ while Patti Smith sings some of the lyrics that she had borrowed from it. The content of this poem, the ‘Mercy Pity Peace and Love’ in man and God, create a tenuous link to the theological concerns that underlie most of Malick’s work. As Smith says in the film, she can ‘go on for hours with one chord’, and that seems to be true of Malick too – many of the same ideas are being presented here that he was working with in the 70s. But is he, as Rodrigo Perez alleges in The Playlist, ‘[trapped by design] in a self-made feedback loop of soul-seeking infinity’? To an extent, yes – he continues to posit unanswerable questions in a familiar style. But for those who like the Malickian chord, there is still much beauty to be found – and this is the best it has sounded in years.
*By total chance (almost a year to the day after this article’s publishing) I have stumbled across the source of this footage. It is from Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 Ménilmontant, a film that Malick has expressed a fondness for; if silent cinema is like a tree cut prematurely, he mused, Ménilmontant was perhaps a hint of a future that would never come. It would be disingenuous to backedit this review in an attempt to integrate this new information, but it is certainly worth some consideration.
Song to Song is out now in select UK cinemas. See the trailer below: