Review: Malick gets some life back in ‘Song to Song’

Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press

As filmmakers obsessed with his early work continue to ape his style, Terrence Malick has ventured beyond, reaching into territory that is stubbornly spiritual and anti-narrative. He eschews story conventions. He turns movie stars like Ben Affleck and Christian Bale into props, using them not for their acting, but their broad shoulders that fill up the screen as ethereal women twirl around them. He has become his own genre and with experimental reveries like “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups,” he has alienated some of his most ardent fans.

That modern trilogy concludes with “Song to Song,” taking the filmmaker and his stars, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, to his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. For those who wrote off Malick after “To the Wonder” or “Knight of Cups,” it’s unlikely that “Song to Song” will inspire a change of heart. But for the others, who’ve reservedly or unabashedly stayed with him, “Song to Song” is entirely worthy and even invigoratingly different from the previous two. There’s actually a plot (kind of) and the actors can act and even have some life and (gasp) fun.

“Song to Song” is a love triangle of sorts, very much in the Malick mode, where one is pure (Mara and Gosling’s struggling musicians), one is untenable (Cate Blanchett and Gosling), one is damned (Fassbender’s sleazy, wealthy producer and Mara) and one is doomed (Natalie Portman’s local waitress/teacher and Fassbender). There are others sprinkled in there, too, mostly for the guys. As retrograde as it is, in Malick’s worlds they’re emboldened to sleep around in the name of searching. The women are always a different story.

If there is a main character it’s Mara’s Faye, who we’re told is a musician although we never see her playing — only hanging out on the side of the stage, idly holding a guitar. She’s a local girl ashamed of her “bad heart” who takes up with both Gosling’s BV and Fassbender’s Cook at the same time. The innocent BV remains ignorant to this, even as the three become close enough to vacation together. Faye flits between the two and the tension builds as we wonder when the charade of fidelity is going to lift.

Combined with Emmanuel Lubezki’s sumptuous cinematography, these travel scenes are fairly riveting. At times I even forgot I was watching a Malick film, which has somehow become more of a compliment recently than a criticism. There are unexpected moments of joy, too, that don’t involve fields or women twirling or cryptic voiceovers.

Still Malick’s just doing his own thing.

‘Song To Song’


Rated R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language.

Running time: 129 minutes