Terrence Malick is one of cinema’s most unique poets. There are no other films quite like his – other than, that is, those that rip off his trademark style. His films are visually gorgeous, increasingly experimental in nature and seemingly attuned to a realm that could best be described as spiritual.
The reclusive director hit a creative peak with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which at the time I called the most ambitious American film since 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in terms of the film’s attempt to ponder our place in the world and universe. Prior to that, the director was responsible for no less than three other masterpieces – his brilliant debut, Badlands; the visually rapturous Days of Heaven and the remarkable war picture The Thin Red Line.
In the years since The Tree of Life, which stands as one of the decade’s very best films, Malick has been uncharacteristically busy. He’s released four films in the past four years and while there have been many things to praise regarding his recent work, they have been less coherent than his first five films (which also includes the very good The New World).
To the Wonder was, as usual, visually stunning, but at the time I wrote that it was my least favorite of his films. But the two films that followed – the highly experimental Knight of Cups and the kinda IMAX documentary Voyage of Time – were even less successful. However, I still recommended all of these films because their visuals were stunning and they still felt, to an extent, of a piece with Malick’s previous work, albeit on a lower tier.
Song to Song is the first Malick film that I can say just did not work for me. It has some breathtaking shots – an early morning sunrise, numerous scenes of people walking through gorgeous scenery, a few inspired concert shots – but it never comes together.
The film’s cast is full of beautiful people – Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Ryan Gosling – as well as cameos from some faces we haven’t seen in a while (Holly Hunter and Val Kilmer) and some rock icons – most notably, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith – but they are left with little to do other than wander around and ponder via voiceover in the manner one would expect in a Malick film.
Although story tends to come at a minimum in Malick’s films, it’s particularly sparse here. Fassbender, a record producer, and Gosling, a musician, vie for the attentions of Mara, that is, until Gosling becomes involved with an older woman (Blanchett) and Fassbender falls for a waitress (Portman). Meanwhile, the South By Southwest music festival seems to be on a never-ending loop in the background. A death occurs (or, then again, maybe it doesn’t), relationships end (often without any reason) and friendships sour (but are later intact, again without explanation).
The film’s title may be a reference to the Bible’s “Song of Songs,” which celebrates sexual love. And there’s plenty of that to be found in “Song to Song,” where gorgeous actors kiss, fondle, cuddle and fornicate all over the place, albeit in a Malickian manner.
Malick’s previous three films have all been set in the present and, at the same time, been his least effective. His next project follows the story of a conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis and my hope is that the film finds him back in top form. Song to Song has some elements that deserve praise – terrific camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki and some inspired cameos – but it never worked for me in the way that Malick’s finest features have.