Song to Song review – Terrence Malick returns to form with lyrical love triangle

The divisive film-maker adds story to swirling camerawork as Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling cross paths in the Texas music scene

Some artists just see the world differently. Terrence Malick, the secretive and mercurial film-maker whose recent output has been, it’s fair to say, divisive, has a very specific lens. In Malickville, time swirls with a beautiful, melancholic rush of imagery, dizzying the senses at every turn. Malick’s life must be exhausting if every walk across the kitchen to pour a cup of tea is such a moment. But if that is your perception, or what you want to project out into the world, then I guess you have to go for it. This time it pays off.

Song to Song is, once you root around for a story, the best of a recent trilogy. To the Wonder and especially Knight of Cups feel like warm-ups to this one. (Voyage of Time, a psychedelic tone poem on life, the universe and everything, doesn’t really count.) It is the story of hungry souls gorging themselves at the wrong buffet, finding a kind of satisfaction in retreat.

Rooney Mara’s Faye, our main character (although we do enter the thoughts of others), is a neophyte musician in Austin, Texas. She becomes involved with two men: Ryan Gosling, a musician on the cusp of success, and Michael Fassbender, a string-pulling producer. A love triangle commences and, in broad strokes, it is cliche. Guy with money is bad. Artists pure of intent are good.

But not since 1973’s Badlands has Malick been overly concerned with plot, and he certainly isn’t interested in black and white characters. In his 1998 film, The Thin Red Line, both the meek and the macho are prone to poetic inner monologues. This time, the weird string of performances and parties also make for their own kind of theatre of war, with battles breaking out between lovers and friends.

A recurring rock festival works less as a concrete event than a literal stage for our characters to appear in a new light. As a practical matter, Malick does little to redress the set; it’s clearly the same event where folks like Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Flea and Patti Smith appeared. What at first seem like flashbacks evolve into our characters making a return journeys to another, very photogenic world.

There’s nothing in Song to Song to suggest wild interpretations aren’t encouraged. This is a movie that will frequently snap to images free of context, such as footage of old Soviet cinema cutting to a meal scene outside an Austin food truck. There’s also plenty of conspicuous fish-eye lenses in the gorgeous and often empty modern apartments (Faye works as an estate agent). There isn’t a moment in the film that is granted a simple, mundane exhibition.

Perhaps my own first-hand knowledge of the Austin and South By Southwest scenes meant that I found Song to Song extra intriguing. But not because I recognise what’s on screen as anything resembling reality. Austin is not a symphony of listlessness where every man looks gorgeous in a suit and every woman likes to play peekaboo behind muslin curtains in a half-shirt. (Mara and supporting player Natalie Portman both get ample screen-time doing the ol’ Terry twirl.) This movie about Austin features not one stout, bearded dude in an Empire Strikes Back T-shirt – and that makes it damn lie.

This stew of beauty and unhappiness does, however, cohere in a way that Knight of Cups did not. The characters talk more, and laugh more, and the scenes have just enough narrative drive to keep up momentum. What ultimately happens is broadly predictable, but the key difference is that you care. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “normal” movie, but audiences alienated by Malick’s recent style will find this a bit more palatable. Plus Patti Smith actually has a few scenes of dialogue, and she’s magnificent.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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