Love is a transient state of being. People find it and lose it on a daily basis. Whether it’s falling out of love or the permanence of death removing one’s better half entirely, it’s almost unheard of for those who have tumbled head over heels to remain that way forever. So it only makes sense that Terrence Malick would set Song to Song – his typically ethereal psalm to those who’ve experienced this fleeting sensation – in Austin, a town where nobody lays down roots for good. Anyone who’s ever spent a significant amount of time in that city knows that discovering an “original” anymore is almost as rare as the legitimate “weirdness” its now mass manufactured bumper stickers and t-shirts tout. The liberal oasis in the middle of Texas is now merely a way station for twenty-and-thirtysomethings who want to have a little fun before moving out to the surrounding suburbs (or another city entirely) and settling down for good. It seems even those who become infatuated with the Lone Star Capitol do so for a brief, intense stint, before letting the realities of life intervene, all while rich hawking white men peer out from their glass castles nestled in the hills, searching for the next starry-eyed youths to exploit.
Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) aren’t really characters as much as they’re avatars for the wandering artists who come to Austin, looking for a way to make a buck off their creative drive. Faye lost faith in discovering any sort of sincere human connection long ago, resorting to violent sex in order to “feel something,” sleeping with those she believes can shepherd her career along. BV is an even greater elemental epitome – a musician who hates the fine threads and fake smiles he encounters at parties thrown by Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music producer who make Phil Spector seem like a easygoing fella. Faye is fucking Cook, but it never really feels like she’s with him for anything beyond the primal sensation of flesh penetrating flesh. But once BV begins circling her, a courtship commences that opens up the possibility of letting another human being share an intimate slice of her spirit.
Malick’s always been an impishly romantic filmmaker, his camera ostensibly untethered to any semblance of earthly physics, floating around his subjects and seemingly switching out wide lenses at will. Faye and BV’s romance is told through fragmented instances of cutesy flirtation (with Gosling in peak “movie star” mode), as Malick’s now trademarked trade-offs of breathy narration allow a peek into these archetypes’ hopes, fears and needs. It’s a perfection of the swooning naiveté and teeth gnashing angst the fiercely one-of-a-kind auteur toyed with in To the Wonder and Knight of Cups; a sharpening of his own form so precise that it makes those two works look like dry runs for Song to Song in hindsight. Only where those movies lacked an appropriate threat to their central characters’ happiness, Cook lingers on the periphery, remaining an undisclosed source of intimacy for Faye and a Faustian tempter for BV. By continuing to offer value to both, the record producer is able to slither in-between the two, creating a schism that’s nefariously designed.
Per usual, Fassbender is the movie’s true delight, walking a fine line between charming and perverse that’s become the actor’s calling card. Literally dancing and wrestling with Gosling before seducing Mara, he’s a Satan whose enticements are amusing in their wanton frivolity. Want to take a zero gravity jet to Mexico and drink tequila until you’re blind? How about backstage access to rock legends like Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten during ACL and Fun Fun Fun Fest? Cook delivers the lifestyle of a Rock God without any of the effort (we conspicuously never see the lovers perform on their own) before scolding BV about his lack of ethics, and copyrighting the musicians’ songs in the producer’s name alone. Once Malick cross-cuts flashbacks to Cook’s doomed, abusively erotic marriage to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), it’s clear that his intentions with both of these hot-blooded courtesans is anything but pure. He simply wants to destroy something beautiful.
Malick utilizes Fassbender’s character to inject a rather sly commentary into Song to Song about Austin’s disappearing personality. Encased in a designer cage of steel and glass high in the hills (of Westlake?), this devil peers down upon the angels who roam the sun-soaked streets with nothing but dollar signs in his eyes. While setting the movie inside ATX’s thriving music scene will be a rather obvious decision even to those who don’t call the city home, Cook could easily be a scheming tech bro or real estate developer, looking to invest in the destruction of city landmarks (like the recently deceased Sfanthor House of Wax or Maria’s Taco Xpress) in order to raise more high-priced condos for like-minded demons to rot away in. It’s a corruption and erasure of the originality that once defined the metropolis, as Faye and BV represent the artistic-minded denizens who are chewed up and spit out by sharks swimming in otherwise idyllic waters. Just as every human being in the movie loses some form of love along the way, Austin itself is a character who’s slowly being morphed by those who can’t even stand to live within its limits.
If Song to Song loses its way at all, it’s due to the parental strife Malick infuses into every one his pictures, sometimes against his better judgment. There’s an underdeveloped subplot regarding BV making peace with his dying father (echoing the insufferable Knight of Cups) that never thematically ties into the rest of the movie beyond a general notion of merciful forgiveness. Mothers are figures who’re abandoned, widowed or lonely, as Faye, Rhonda and BV all struggle to support the women who brought them into this world. You can sense Malick’s intent (children filling the void of absent partners), but the thought never quite congeals into a thread that feels worthy of the significant chunk of runtime devoted to it.
We’ve reached a point in Malick’s filmography where his singular cinematic methods are either inviting or utterly alienating to viewers. The combination of semi-scripted improvisation and “finding” his films in the editing bay (cutters Hank Corwin, Brian Berdan, AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase and Rehman Nizar Ali deserve a standing ovation here) lends every one of his post-Tree of Life narratives a loose delineation that’s defiantly (and often detrimentally) nontraditional in terms of storytelling. Thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s otherworldly gorgeous photography, and a team of (presumably exhausted) camera operators, we can identify Malick’s movies via a few fleeting frames. Thankfully, Song to Song rediscovers the strong emotional cores his last two pictures lacked, marking it as the strongest work he’s put out in years. Song to Song may not be for everyone, but those already tuned into the audio/visual poet’s wavelength are sure to find plenty to adore before the lights go up and they move on to their next amorous adventure.