As a critic and as a human being, with needs, I’m driven more than a little crazy by the recent films of Terrence Malick, with their perpetual murmuring voice-overs and creamy idealization of women as saints or sinners. I’ve begun to resent the ravishing floor-to-ceiling windows in all those swanky, minimally furnished private residences. My buttocks clench, ever so slightly, when the ethereal female spirits in white twirl around in circles, surrounded by tall grass, or break into an atavistic dance routine in a crosswalk, oncoming traffic be damned.
Malick writes scripts and films extensive dialogue scenes and then cuts most of the real-time, back-and-forth conversation in the editing. He’s like, who needs it? Just go with it. Malick favors a gliding river of pure cinema, sometimes gorgeous beyond measure, and that’s the thing. He’s a responsive artist who’ll canoe straight into the weeds without a narrative paddle. He gets caught in the weeds, and then he films the weeds, while an actress or an actor poses rhetorical questions on the soundtrack about love or guilt or the humbling glory of God’s green and increasingly ruined earth.
A hack, right? That makes Malick sound like a hack, or a poseur. But even now, coming off a particularly unfruitful streak in the wake of his last major work, “The Tree of Life” (2011), Malick can’t be written off. He’s profoundly intuitive as a creator of poetic imagery. He doesn’t care much about prose, and even less for story beats. Even in the emptiest of his emptiest works (my vote goes to “Knight of Cups,” in which Christian Bale wandered through a gentle rain of beautiful, available female flesh) you’ll get a moment, or a rhyming composition created in the editing process, and it goes ping in your brain and the visual echo stays with you for a minute or 10 or maybe the entire picture.
He appears to be coming to the end of a phase. “Song to Song,” his latest, may be the endgame in that phase.
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Many loathed the world premiere this month at South by Southwest in Austin, where Malick filmed much of the movie. Several walkouts occurred the other night at the Chicago screening, and they weren’t stroll-outs; they were closer to run-outs.
So be it. Every time the movie made me nertz, a minute or three scenes later, there was a sunset or a look between Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman or even a rare line of voice-over dialogue that went ping. Frequently maddening in its reiteration and circularity, “Song to Song” nonetheless offers more of interest (along with the hooey) than I found in “Knight of Cups” or “Voyage of Time,” his recent IMAX cosmos travelogue.
Malick’s latest can be described, deceivingly, as a romantic triangle, though it’s really more of a romantic rhombus or an octagon, or something. We’re floating through the Austin music scene. Fassbender is a devilish, filthy-rich control freak of a music producer. Ryan Gosling is a songwriter under his wing. Rooney Mara is a vaguely defined singer/songwriter as well, and finds a mentor in a Patti Smith-like legend played by Patti Smith.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, in his fifth Malick collaboration, apparently has found a way to light Portman from within. She’s the embodiment of earthy Texas sensuality, and her waitress character is introduced in shamelessly ogling fashion. (Malick may be a humanist but he’s also a horndog.)
Portman falls into Fassbender’s bed, which is occupied, on the sly, by Mara’s character, stepping out on her boyfriend. The heavily improvised “Song to Song,” which was originally called “Lawless” and then “Weightless,” harks back to the Arthur Schnitzler play “La Ronde.” It’s a daisy chain of intimacies.
Gosling calls off the relationship with Mara owing to his jealous, unforgiving heart, and spends some time with Cate Blanchett. Mara eases into a fling with a French newcomer to Austin, played by Berenice Marlohe. Malick frames the Mara character’s sexual adventures as trial and error, mostly error. He has a strong streak of Christian guilt, for all his twirly sensory pleasure: When Mara says, “I revolted against goodness,” it may give the viewer pause, whatever sort of moralist you are or aren’t.
The characters aren’t really characters; they’re moods. Val Kilmer pops into the frame for a few seconds, wielding a chain saw on stage during a live performance, and it’s a fantastic change-up, as weird as the brief shot of the Segway riders in the background of a walk-and-talk dialogue sequence.
“Song to Song” tests its dreamers and wanderers and leaves them a little wiser, maybe, for the experience. And maybe that’s the best way to express how I felt watching it, wrestling with it, hating some of it, falling under the spell of the occasional, tantalizing best of it.
In an early ’70s road movie called “Deadhead Miles,” written by Malick before he made his mark with “Badlands,” a hijacker relishes his latest target when he sees the oncoming semitruck has nothing but “two miles of empty road behind him.” At this point in his career, Malick has nothing but empty road ahead of him. Onward.
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Song to Song
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender
Rated: R (sexuality, nudity, drug use, and strong language)
Running time: 129 min.