"I went through a period where sex had to be violent," says Faye (Rooney Mara) in the opening line of voice-over in Terrence Malick's latest film, Song To Song (2017). Much like the past three dramatic feature films Malick has made that deal with the contemporary world (parts of The Tree of Life (2011), and all of To The Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2015)), Song To Song has a hypnotic quality, but this time it's heightened, which can be partially attributed to its focus on adults in their mid-to-late-twenties and early thirties in a state of transition as they craft their self-supporting selves. Most of the protagonists' identities are not set in stone, and the film's structural and aesthetic form compliments this. Were it about people who knew who they wanted to be and had nothing to lose (as in Knight of Cups), this would be a far different experience. Here, people wander from place to place – or more broadly, through life – with purpose. With an innovative approach to the film's aesthetic and the narrative at hand, Malick has made a brilliant film with a wide range of emotions and sensations bolstered by exceptional performances by everyone involved.
"Am I a good person?" is a question that Faye asks herself twice over the course of the film, and it seems to be a question in response to internal growing pains. The answers aren't provided for any of the questions asked in Song To Song, but they're tackled with the utmost sincerity. Faye, like everyone else in this film, wants to experience life more fully and know that she hasn't missed anything along the way, but she feels pressure to be certain a way and live at a specific standard – things she can't control.
In many ways, Faye is the compass for the film, as she crosses the most narrative lines. At her side is Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music producer in Austin, Texas who has had great success as he lives a life surrounded by excesses of wealth and pleasure. Cook has everything he needs and is the most firmly developed of the four central protagonists (for better and for worse). Recruiting the musical abilities of BV (Ryan Gosling), a friendship is formed between Cook and BV and a new love is kindled as Faye and BV are drawn together. On the periphery of this waltz through Texas is Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress who has abandoned her dream of teaching kindergarten. A fateful meeting with Cook re-energizes her as they fall for one another and begin to face life together. Music and concerts fill their time, and they "live from song to song," but this is not a musical. Instead, it's more of a film around music – a film about the lives of creatives faced with reality.
Although the film begins with a line suggesting that sex will have a significant weight over the film, it is merely its relational form that is contemplated upon. There certainly are scenes of romance and even sex, but they are fleeting and often elegantly presented. Within the context of this film, Malick seems to favor love over desires of the flesh, but he acknowledges that they exist. Éros, philía, storge, and agápe – the Greek words for four kinds of love – are all represented, and have an important place or absence in Song To Song. Specifically storge, the love between parents and children, has a degree of precedence over the choices characters make. The bond between parents and their children also motivates some of the most nuanced performances in the film and moments of intense expressions of emotion. As BV sits beside his bedridden father who can hardly take care of himself, he begins to pick off the dried food from his father's shirt and remarks with tears running down his face, "You've got food all over you." It's a line that states the obvious, but it feels as if it's coming from a deeply real place. That's merely one example of many, but they all speak to the nature of becoming an adult who controls their own life.
Time moves in a fluidic manner in Song To Song, as the narrative can seemingly jump from the past to the present at any given moment. Rooney Mara's hair is seemingly in a constant state of flux, but it's only because Song To Song's narrative spans, what may be, a year or more. Context clues such as hair and clothing cue us into the non-linear nature of this film that is more of an experiential document than a story, and yet it's incredibly compelling. That's what they are though: context clues. This film's narrative is, at times, buried beneath an emphasis on things that don't add up to a conventional narrative (or a narrative at all), but it's immensely rewarding to follow these characters (who are effortlessly brought to life by some of the most interesting actors working today) as they try to find themselves.
More grounded in the common day-to-day feel of life, Malick's camera – manned by Emmanuel Lubezki – is perfectly married to the cutting of the film. Capturing the essence of life through gestures that are conveyed with a constantly moving camera, and often supplemented by quick cuts, one feels the texture of a digital world without people interacting on devices. People seemingly fall in and out of love as effortlessly as Malick cuts from shot to shot, but it feels right as the non-linearity aides in making this approach to visual storytelling satisfying.
Although the film is less visually stimulating than Knight of Cups (which was shot immediately before Song To Song), the contrasting of textures from 35mm film to GoPro footage and 4k digital photography remains interesting and speaks to the way life is lived and experienced through different visual frames (the real and the digital). There are even several scenes in which the camera must've been mounted to Fassbender's forehead, as the camera truly becomes his eyes as Natalie Portman looks at us while he reaches out to caress her face. The camera, and where it is, is a factor of virtual tangibility that changes from shot to shot.
For the less patient viewer who may have seen a few Terrence Malick films before, this might feel like "more of the same," but it is notably a different kind of film that is traversing through new territory thematically and formally for Malick, and it's a delight to watch it unfold. He continues to surprise with each film he makes, and this is no exception. There's a moment where BV and Faye are running around a puddle in the wide open wilderness of Texas as the Sun sets. The camera gradually pushes in as BV tries to hop over the puddle and a single foot lands in it as he continues chasing after Faye outside of the frame, and yet the camera doesn't follow them. As people, they're in transition, and as they exit the frame, we see a place where they once were as the ripples in the water leave a sign of their presence behind. Though the film doesn't directly answer Faye's question of "who am I?", it does provide the process of her finding out.
My rating: 4/5