SXSW 2017: Terrence Malick’s Song to Song
Much has been made about writer/director Terrence Malick’s two-decade break from filmmaking. Those years were largely spent in Austin, where his latest stunner, Song to Song, is set. There is no one quite like Malick, from his very first film, Badlands, starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as two young killers on the run, Malick took a story that we’d heard before (a road trip movie with killers—think Bonnie and Clyde), and gave it a psychological heft that was both unnerving and remarkable. His atmospheric attention—to empty skies and to trees, to small birds and to grain—is astonishing. The two, young, shallow killers are nearly swallowed up in the space Malick captures, and in this way, and then many others, they’re diminished.
It was after his next remarkable film, Days of Heaven, that Malick took his twenty-year hiatus. Days of Heaven was a screen poem set around a story of love and murder, when a steelworker gets into a fight with his boss, fleeing with his little sister and girlfriend. It’s told through the prospective of that teenager sister, and it was widely considered one of the most beautiful films ever made. When Malick finally reemerged, he made the WWII epic Thin Red Line, in 1998, then the John Smith and Pocahontas epic The New World, in 2005, both massive films with large, ensemble casts. The reviews were mixed, but Malick’s touch, his singular vision, was evident in both.
Now, Malick has entered an extremely prolific period, making five films since 2011’s gorgeous The Tree of Life, a personal saga about three young brothers growing up in small-town Texas under their potent, at times terrifying father (Brad Pitt, at his best) and their beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain, her breakout role). The Tree of Life is perhaps the only family drama that has or will ever feature an interlude with dinosaurs, one that seems to suggest the prehistoric emergence of empathy. The film is Malick through-and-through, gorgeous to behold, puzzling, odd.
“We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” Faye (Rooney Mara) says in voice over at the beginning of Malick’s Song to Song, explaining both the title and the trajectory of his latest film. Song to Song opened the festival here, drawing a huge crowd to see the master’s take on the Austin music scene. The film explores Faye’s love life; a songwriter who finds herself caught between two men, the influential producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and his newest talent, BV (Ryan Gosling). Three other women complicate this central love triangle: Amanda (Cate Blanchett), Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and the Skyfall Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe, playing an actress.
Working with his longtime collaborator, the colossally talented DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and a team of seriously ace editors, Malick once again delivers a movie that moves elliptically, eschewing a linear narrative in favor of a more subjective, fluid style. We follow Faye as she tries to crack the Austin music scene, sleeps with Cook, meets BV at a party, and falls in love. Malick’s take on showing love on screen is moody, disjointed, and usually involves literally rolling around in the grass. Everything is, of course, beautifully shot. There are worse things in the world than watching Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling enter a Malickian fugue of tickling, kissing and giggling.
The film’s certainly a puzzle, with the timeline fractured and Mara’s Faye changing looks (and homes) throughout. There are suggestive bits of dialogue and voice over that are left for the viewer to consider (especially when Faye reveals that she went through a period where she thought sex had to be violent), which puts a lot of onus on you to try and keep up, figure out where Faye is, in both time and space, and where she is with her relationships. The film’s five editors took four years to create intense complexity out of what may be a fairly easily told story about love found and lost. Portman, Blanchet and Marlohe help widen the story’s scope, giving us three very different women who shape both Faye and BV’s lives in unexpected ways.
There are some fantastic cameos, including Holly Hunter as Portman’s mother, and, perhaps most crucially for this music-centric tale, Iggy Pop, Flea, Lykke Li, and Patti Smith, who does a lot with a small role. There’s a very funny cameo with a certain actor we’ll leave out, one that suggests a whole other film Malick could have (and might) focus on.
It’s hardly Malick’s best work, but it’s certainly Malickian in all the ways we’ve come to know. Slippery, metaphysical, at times achingly beautifully and ultimately elusive—a little like love itself.
Featured image: Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling. Courtesy SXSW.