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Song to Song (2017)

Drama Rated R

Even as Terrence Malick’s last few films have increasingly splintered formally—into shards of voiceover, music, and memory—their concerns have become more straightforward. These movies look a lot more enigmatic than they are. With his last picture in particular, Knight of Cups, and now Song to Song, the meaning has such prominence, even insistence, that a certain moralism has crept in. These stories center on characters who have lost their way, indulged in debauchery, and slowly, painfully, seek a cleaner life.

Unsurprisingly, sexuality is a major component. Song to Song meanders and swirls, as Malick movies tend to do, getting stuck in little eddies with minor supporting characters, but most of the scenes involve a love triangle of sorts with three characters: Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician circling the Austin music scene; Cook (Michael Fassbender), a Mephistopheles-like music producer who invites Faye into his circle of wealth, power, and pleasure; and BV (Ryan Gosling), a rising star who falls for Faye and signs a deal with Cook, unaware of how deeply he and Faye are entangled.

BV’s naivete on that last point is a problem for Song to Song, as the plot—such as it is—tries to wring suspense from the fact that he’s something of a cuckold, even though we’ve picked up on it early on. Not that the film is a conventional, three-act experience. Insistently nonlinear, Song to Song drops in on various couplings at alternating points in time. Most of these scenes involve the three main characters, but there are also sections featuring other pairings: Fassbender and Natalie Portman, as a waitress he seduces, marries, and desecrates; Gosling and Cate Blanchett, as a sad, lonely, older woman who presides over a vast Austin estate; and Mara and Berenice Marlohe, as a French expatriate who allows Faye to be her plaything until she tires of her. As the movie flits among these pairings—described in voiceover while the couples exchange intense gazes, playfully smear lipstick on each other’s faces, and tickle each other—Song to Song begins to feel like one long game of footsie.

Song to Song begins to feel like one long game of footsie.

Not all of the interactions are cute and loving. Malick makes a distinction—and here’s where the moralism comes in—between the hedonistic indulgences of Cook, who forces his wife into acts that leave her shattered, and the mutual glow of Faye and BV, who mostly practice communal canoodling. One represents the pursuit of personal pleasure no matter what the relational costs, while the other depicts sex as an expression of commitment and relationship. That’s an important distinction to make, but as communicated here—with leering camera angles capturing the bad behavior and a magic-hour softness given to the good—it verges on the sort of hypocritical finger-wagging that undoes Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac project, which punishes a woman for pursuing all sorts of pleasures that the movie is more than happy to depict.

It isn’t long before Malick’s strategy in Song to Song becomes clear: Faye ends up being used by everyone but BV, a reality to which she slowly awakens. “I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” she says in voiceover at one point. And later: “I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me.”

Mara, it should be said, has a boldness and directness that makes this sort of soul-baring work. There is also something to the way she moves, which is crucial to a Malick movie. Less important than how the actors “perform” his voiceover dialogue is their relationship with his roving, curious camera. You almost have to dance with it, and Mara does. (Even better is Lykke Li in a few brief scenes as BV’s former girlfriend.) They’re in rhythm with the lilting shots and the overlapping editing patterns, as if they meant to step exactly from one matching shot right into another.

Actors almost have to dance with Malick’s camera, and Mara does.

Fassbender is doing his own sort of dancing, and it’s electric. At one point he mimics a monkey, rumbling along the ground, and his presence is animalistic throughout. He even looks into Malick’s camera for a brief second, as if he’s challenging it. As for Gosling, well, good for him for taking this risk—putting himself in the hands of a filmmaker who isn’t there to enhance your charms (even if he’s in your character’s corner) as much as he’s there to open a space for you and his camera to share. Gosling tries, quite hard, to fill that space with playfulness, but by the second time he falls off a chair to get someone to smile, the strain becomes clear.

Like Knight of Cups (and his masterpiece, The Tree of Life), Malick is working here with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Yet aside from a few startling moments—including a cloud of dust kicked up by BV, which seems to capture and carry along the camera—Song to Song is light on the sort of poetic imagery that we’ve come to expect from Malick’s work. The jumble of GoPro cameras, 35mm film stock, and curved lenses provides a textural eclecticism (just as the mixture of classical, hip hop, and South by Southwest concert music provide aural variety), but there are few moments where these elements crystallize into something inspired.

Could that be because thematically Song to Song is also a bit leaden? Malick’s films have always had moral concerns—The Tree of Life, among other things, is a treatise on original sin—but it isn’t until recently that these concerns have clarified into a clearly expressed conservatism. When Faye returns home for a visit and her younger sisters—suburban, raising children—are held up as models of virtue, questions of how to live and why, which previously lay hidden in Malick’s mesmerizing images, are given too-easy answers. There’s something dispiriting about seeing a poet try to tell a morality tale.