Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. 129 minutes. 2017.
One expects a legendary filmmaker like Terrence Malick to have higher ambitions than the ones on display in Song to Song, the latest in the writer/director’s unofficial quartet of films in which a straightforward narrative is secondary to the experimental visual storytelling that frames said narrative. In each of the previous cases, however, there was a deeper philosophical point to be made than the plot being relayed onscreen: 2011’s The Tree of Life paired the experience of a nuclear family (whose real-life inspiration may or may not have been Malick’s own) with the meaning of life and the evolution of the earth, 2013’s To the Wonder examined faith through the prism of a man’s rocky marriage, and 2016’s Knight of Cups explored a man’s devolving materialistic woes through his own romantic entanglements. With his newest film, Malick threads a pair of romantic triangles amid the music scene of Austin, Texas.
One half of this works quite well during the few sequences that capture the energy of the music festivals that form at the center of the state’s capitol. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki weave in, out, and around the partygoers as techno music and rap tracks blare over the sound system. It’s a place of frenzied fun as bands perform, backstage antics occur, and lives intertwine in only that singular way they can at a music festival. Faye (Rooney Mara), our heroine of sorts, is an aspiring songwriter who would likely enjoy her work being featured in this festival. She was hired in her later teenage years by Cook (Michael Fassbender), a carefree producer, and has formed a romance with BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring songwriter, through that connection. They mingle with legends of rock music, and Malick provides us with glimpses of them, such as Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.
The decadence of the sequences set in this world is formally dazzling and often thrilling, but the film’s focus is on the increasingly tumultuous relationship that develops between our three main characters. Each of them remains a cypher, with the possible exception of BV, and when there is a chance to define them further, Malick falls back on montages of characters exploring the textures of their surroundings. There is also much melodrama in the particulars of the characters’ journeys: Faye meets another woman (played by Berenice Marlohe) who challenges her perception of her own sexuality. BV meets an older woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who reminds him vaguely of his mother. Cook falls for a waitress (played by Natalie Portman), whose whirlwind marriage to Cook leads to menage a trois and tragedy.
It’s hard to detect a deeper point in what Malick is trying to say here than what shows up onscreen. Cook believes he is the Devil incarnate, but the idea never comes to anything and the events of the latter half of the film would seem to derail it in any case. Faye enjoys the “pain” of sex, which, one supposes, means that she feels nothing else, except we are never allowed a glimpse of her real nature. BV’s arc remains static in spite of some business involving his father’s illness, the character a largely reactive one. The bare essence of the characters, as usual in Malick’s filmography, is the point, so in theory, none of these should be detriments. In practice here, though, even insight into the characters’ bare essence is minimal. The filmmaker has found success – some of it great – in the past by fracturing and deconstructing traditional narratives into elemental fables. With Song to Song, the deconstruction has gone a few degrees too far.