It is getting more and more difficult to quantify Terrence Malick as a filmmaker, particularly with his abstract and introverted narratives with his last three features. TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG are a trilogy of films that are visual interpretations of fragmented memories that Malick holds within his psyche. The picture (filmed back to back with his previous film KNIGHT OF CUPS) centers on three major characters woven within the music scene in Austin, Texas. Rooney Mara is the wannabe musician, working her way up through the ranks of Michael Fassbender’s production company, and Ryan Gosling is a musician who falls deeply in love with Mara. A tragic and tangled love story ensues, and we watch as these three people zigzag throughout each other’s lives.
The film is very much a natural progression of Malick’s previous two films. It is as if you’re trekking through a reflection of someone’s memories. We see prominent moments, with a slurry of small, yet important details that bridge together a kaleidoscope of a narrative. Where KNIGHT OF CUPS was playfully sensual and very erotic, SONG TO SONG is brutally perverse at times, seeing and experiencing a very dark portrayal of sexuality.
The actors assembled are remarkable. There are a few carryovers from KNIGHT OF CUPS, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman in particular, but the bulk of the cast is a new Malick ensemble. Michael Fassbender is nasty as ever as the record producer who is without emotion. He constantly pushes himself in transgressive ways. He forces threesomes upon his acquired lovers, he experiments with drugs, and he undercuts anyone whose support he has gained.
Ryan Gosling is very different than we’ve seen him in a film before. He’s very sweet, he’s very romantic. While he maintains his stoic cinematic image, he sheds the mystery and hamminess that we’ve become too used to. His interactions with Rooney Mara are wonderfully beautiful. He gives a very touching and soft performance, a clear contrast to the menace and dirtiness of Michael Fassbender. Natalie Portman gives yet another completely vulnerable turn as a young woman distracted by Fassbender’s charm and monetary value, ultimately suffering from it. Val Kilmer and Holly Hunter briefly show up. Kilmer is a singer, who greatly plays off his Jim Morrison persona, and Holly Hunter is the mother of Natalie Portman’s tragic darling.
What separates this from the previous two people twirling features, is that for the first time Malick has used popular music, while still using classical numbers. Del Shannon’s RUNAWAY was prominently featured in the trailer and in an important scene in the film. Along with his use of popular music, the film also features cameos from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Rotten, a significant scene between Michael Fassbender and Iggy Pop, and a narrative affecting performance from Patti Smith who acts as a mentor to Rooney Mara.
The collaboration between Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a pairing that is cinematic nirvana. It’s a match that tends to not be talked about nearly as much as it should be. The picture looks and feels organic, it doesn’t look like a movie, nor does it feel emulated; it is real life.
If you haven’t been with Malick on his last two pictures, it would be difficult to recommend this film to you. Yet the film is powerfully filled with beautiful and transgressive emotions. The film is an experience, it’s as unorthodox as one might think. The film is challenging, it is an experience that is worthy of anyone’s attention. If that album cover of Pink Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE were a film, it would be SONG TO SONG.