There is something unique about a Terrence Malick film. It breaks the rules of storytelling to give us a poetic look at life, love and heartbreak. If you study his last handful of films including ‘The Tree of Life,’ ‘To the Wonder’ and ‘Knight of Cups,’ Malick uses breathtaking images to capture the beauty of life. He never has a problem attracting A-list actors to his projects. His films also contain gorgeous characters dancing, embracing, kissing and twirling and then ultimately separating. Is he trying to make a statement that life is fleeting? You get that sense with his latest work, ‘Song to Song’ which is essentially a love story set against the Austin music scene. Diehard fans will get its meaning while others might exit the theater feeling frustrated. If you let down your guard, you might be astonished how much meaning you can get from his radical style of imagery, characterization and meditative voice-overs.
‘Song to Song’ deals with a love triangle. We get to see two struggling musicians meet for the first time at a classy party. When Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) flirt, there is purity to their budding relationship. They both have one thing in common which is to be a successful musical artist. Faye is a fledgling guitarist trying to hook up with a band. BV is a pianist/songwriter that collaborates with Cook (Michael Fassbender), a record producer that has the power to launch careers. At first, it is all sweet and innocent as Faye sways back and forth from Cook to BV. Although it appears she has genuine feelings for BV, it is the possibility of a record contract with Cook that keeps drawing her back to him. She knows it is like signing a deal with the devil but the allure of fame and fortune is too tempting.
The performances from the lead actors are mesmerizing. It is clear that the actors are improvising many of the scenes. When Faye, BV and Cook travel to Mexico together, it feels spontaneous as they drink, dance and laugh together on the beach. At one point, Fassbender’s character imitates a monkey and Gosling laughs so hard his chair falls over. Malick is always aware of the inner-child within his characters constantly seeking pleasure and connection. It seems like his films are making a statement about the paradox of hedonism. This can be evident in Cook. He uses his money and power to control women in his life. In his world, women are to be objectified to satisfy his animal desires. However, he never appears to be completely fulfilled and looks empty. He flirts with a waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and eventually marries her. He’s drawn to her innocence and like everything else in his life, their relationship turns perverted and corrupt.
The other two principle characters have flings with other partners. Faye has an affair with an alluring Frenchwoman named Zoey (Berenice Marlohe). BV hooks up with an ex-girlfriend (Swedish singer Lykke Li) and then an older woman, Amanda (Cate Blanchett). All the while, we get amazing VIP backstage access at SXSW concerts. We get up close with rock legends Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten and Patti Smith. There is also a cameo by Val Kilmer playing a heavy metal Ozzy Osbourne type of personality. The young characters like BV, Faye and Rhonda are seduced by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. In a way, Cook represents the golden ticket to money and fame. He also symbolizes disillusionment as Faye exchanges sex for a chance at a record deal. BV’s relationship with Cook turns sour when he accuses him of ripping off his songs. Malick likes to point out that some things are not as good as they are believed to be – like fame. This leads to the two protagonists BV and Faye expressing their fears about being worthy of each other’s love. Ultimately, Faye needs to shed her illusions of happiness before she can really be set free and truly fall in love with BV.
‘Song to Song’ is experimental filmmaking by Malick. You can say this film completes his trilogy. It’s brave work from a true auteur. You either get his work or you don’t. There is no in-between. His go-to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant) is at the top of his game. The lush colors and wide camera angles make it appear dreamlike. Isn’t life an accumulation of moments in time? Adventurous film buffs should seek out Malick’s latest opus. It’s a stunning film that wants you to embrace the harshness and beauty of life. ‘Song to Song’ is now playing at an arthouse theater near you.