Terrence Malick’s latest gorgeously composed, meandering, redundant, fragmented, self-indulgent, tedious, spiritually probing, sprawling, elliptical, ambitious, and ultimately maddening cinematic poem is very much a piece with the director’s three previous narrative features: The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups. Hardcore Malick fans who flocked to those flicks will find much to like here; all others, perhaps, not so much. And yet, for cinephiles looking for something uniquely different from the usual Hollywood hokum popping up at the multiplex, Song to Song does offer some interesting rewards as the auteur explores areas of the human heart and spirit in his own highly unique filmmaking style.
“We thought we could just roll and tumble; live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” Faye (Rooney Mara), a young Austin-based musician, says as she describes her (admittedly shallow) life philosophy. She’s involved with two men: Cook (Michael Fassbender), a wealthy music executive she thinks can help get her career off the ground, and BV (Ryan Gosling), an up-and-coming singer-songwriter she meets at one of Cook’s lavish parties. The trio then proceed to bounce back and forth between relationships, pursuing sex, pleasure (always pleasure), love, meaning, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and a hint of the divine. They talk a lot (heard mostly in voice-over) about freedom, but their idea of freedom is to indulge in whatever fleshly desire they wish, and then they wonder why they’re so unhappy. “Let us decide what’s right and wrong,” Cook tells Faye. “Who sees us? The world wants to be deceived,” he later adds.
Faye believes him, but only for a while. Soon, Cook is seducing a local waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and Faye becomes involved with a Parisian beauty (Bérénice Marlohe). BV meets up with a rich former lover (Cate Blanchett) and tries to rekindle their relationship, but it quickly flickers out. Nothing satisfies any of them, although they have pretty much everything they want materially and sexually. “There’s something else,” Faye says, “something that wants us to find it.” That something, Malick seems to be saying, is God. BV sings, “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there,” from an old hymn, and talks about following “the light” -- but says he doesn’t know where to find it. “You get used to drifting,” he remarks, and drifting is what everyone here does, not only from song to song but from bed to bed, pleasure to pleasure, with always the same result: emptiness.
By far the most interesting person in Song to Song is punk rocker and poet Patti Smith, who appears as herself and talks about her husband’s death; her striking presence makes the film’s other characters seem superficial by comparison. One of the major drawbacks of Malick’s style is his preference for voice-over, as he prefers to listen in on everyone’s innermost thoughts instead of allowing them to engage in honest conversation. But the device undercuts the narrative and never allows his characters to connect in any meaningful way; he literally robs them of speech. Thankfully, you feel like you are finally getting to hear a flesh-and-blood human being speak when Smith is onscreen, and her simple, heartfelt words convey so much more than all the pretty pictures Malick composes. As for the remaining actors, Portman is the standout. She manages to make Rhonda -- who goes from being a fun-loving, blue-collar gal to a fabulously wealthy but shattered socialite -- believable, vulnerable, and sympathetic with hardly a word spoken.
Song to Song is filled with philosophical musings, spiritual allusions, and Biblical references. One character quotes 1 Corinthians 13:8: “Love never fails.” And unfailing love is what the movie’s characters are all ultimately seeking. But the scripture that Song to Song most evokes is Matthew 16:26, in which Jesus asks, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Malick’s answer? Nothing.
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