Terence Malick’s Song To Song characterizes the director’s recent style of panoramic beauties, contemplative faces and vacant searches for identity. My first experience with Malick was Knight Of Cups, was the most pretentious piece of philosophical rambling that was a charade for whatever crises the privileged and the spoilt may have had. Christian Bale’s character in the film neither gained sympathy nor evoked deeper thought, but was acting as if the audience should care about him losing his metaphorical ‘pearl’.
Song To Song carries several trademarks from Malick’s recent style that still makes scenes that are quite low-key more pretentious than they actually are. Song to song’s protagonist is a wandering and aspiring musician Faye (Rooney Mara) who is neither rich nor spoilt. For the first time, there’s actually someone the masses can relate to. She has a beating heart, a vulnerable state of mind and isn’t afraid to admit her own mistakes and pretensions. Maybe that’s the main reason why Song to song isn’t as bad as Knight of cups; I actually felt somewhat connected to the everygirl (everyteen) and not have to plough through the endlessly cringey mullings of the bourgeoise. Mind you, the Texas music scene doesn’t hide all the privileged characters. But even then, most of Malick’s main characters (Mara, Gosling and Portman) are more attuned to the people we see everyday. Despite Malick’s tendency to mistake hazy voice-overs and disconnected images as effective portrayal of internal conflict, the spontaneity and ‘realness’ of his scenes worked for me. Sure it was hit and miss. The movie was still blemished by superficial whisperings and the beautiful nothingness of unrelated landscapes but at least there are real people with real problems.
For hardened Malick fans, Song to Song is going to be an enjoyable experience. For people like me willing to try out whatever the director has in store, it’s a mixed experience. Something tells me that Malick is on to something but his execution lacks authenticity. His vision of the modern world is undercut by disconnected images of beauty and chaos; His characters meander and flail about in many mundane scenes that almost feel the same to the point of being repetitive. At the cost of losing the plot, Malick’s approach might lose the artistic tone, which is what makes his films so special in the first place. Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman didn’t leave much of an impression on me while the central couple played by Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling just managed to tug at the emotional chords. Rooney Mara’s search for identity was quite the ride, but then I remember how Sasha Lane and director Andrea Arnold gave an even more powerful lyrical roadtrip that explored suburban poverty and identity crises in American Honey.
In fact, Song to Song’s best moments come from the scenes with fringe characters like BV’s (Ryan Gosling) mom and Faye’s (Rooney Mara) much older female BFF. The former portrays depression and grief well in the limited screentime she had while the latter’s genuinely affecting and heartbreaking musings about life and death far outshine for example, the banality of Cook’s (Michael Fassbender) extravagance and hedonism. I’m of the opinion that Malick shouldn’t dabble with what he thinks are the abstract problems of high society. It’s superficial to begin with and with his detached style, it is even more impossible to connect with these characters. Malick has done far better with characters who are just trying to get by as can be felt by the more effective scenes involving Faye and BV. Song to Song is not for everyone but it’s certainly more palatable than his previous film, Knight Of Cups. Malick may not nail the tunes of the Texas music scene, nor craft an affecting search for self but if he continues to touch on real issues and subjects, he could yet find his true resurgence.