Terrence Malick is a masterful filmmaker. He may be divisive due to his unique approach to storytelling, but I am firmly on the side that thinks he is an auteur of staggering talent and vision. His films are so intimate and human, yet somehow manage to be so while only allowing the audience glimpses into the lives of the characters that live within his world. The New World explored cultures clashing, the meeting of conquest and nature; Tree of Life detailed the macro and micro, contrasting the birth and death of the universe with the life of a small family in Texas; Song to Song, his newest film, dissects relationships, love, and the eternal push and pull of the often unknowable, unpredictable human desire.
The film centers on Faye, a musician caught between two men: BV, a charming singer/songwriter, and Cook, a wealthy music producer. That’s it. That’s the story. Like Tree of Life, Song to Song is almost voyeuristic in its portrayal of ordinary, day to day life; the audience watches as Faye falls for BV, tries to disentangle herself from Cook, struggles to move on, fails, endures, obsesses. It’s intimate and it’s real and, most importantly, genuine. Even more impressive is its structure, which hits you like a memory – out of order, yet associative, strung together in a wholly unique, impressionistic experience that only Terrence Malick could deliver.
Rooney Mara stars as Faye, the film’s amiable, yet troubled lead. Mara imbues Faye with a sense of emotional frailty and indecision, a constant yearning that she can’t figure out how to reconcile. Her inability to choose between happiness and desire leaves her in a constant state of self-punishment. Mara reflects Faye’s indecision with subtlety and grace. You’re never mad at Faye because you understand her, and understand that sometimes the human heart is unknowable and there is no good reason to explain how you feel or what you do, especially when it comes to love.
Ryan Gosling plays BV as an artist struggling to stay clean in a dirty world. All around him he sees excess and shallowness; the thing for which he hungers most is truth. His pursuit of Faye and truth in their relationship is both relatable and tragic. Yet he is also not without his failings; there’s an unwillingness for confrontation that hinders BV; his inability to face his problems exacerbates his unhappiness and undermines his sense of accomplishment in his own life and career.
Michael Fassbender plays Cook, an irascible yet charismatic rogue whose life is excess. Though self-destructive and impulsive, Fassbender succeeds in making Cook a hypnotic, inescapable presence capable of effortless manipulation. He’s a man that livens up any room he’s in and his friendship with BV, as well as his secret trysts with Faye, are made believable by Fassbender’s endless charm. Yet even Cook is not to be taken at face value and in quiet moments Fassbender gives him just enough vulnerability to show that even he doesn’t believe in the act he’s selling a hundred percent of the time.
This trio of characters, with all their histories and personal faults, desires and goals, make for a fascinating, character-driven story unlike any other. On a technical level, the film soars thanks to three-time Oscar winner, Emmanuel Lubezki’s unparalleled cinematic eye (he won Best Cinematography for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant, respectively). Seriously, everything is beautiful; from the most mundane, dusty trailer to idyllic Mexican beaches, angular modern architecture to the swells and angles of human bodies as they meet. His eye complements Terrence Malick’s directing style, evoking the dreamlike quality of memory. Together, they have created another singular work and Lubezki continues to show why he’s one of the most iconic cinematographers of modern cinema.
Being about music and the music industry, the film also somehow managed to capture footage of the characters interacting with real-life musicians in an organic and meaningful way, including Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Lykke Li, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. Rooney Mara’s Faye even plays on stage at Austin City Limits music festival. Beyond this impressive feat of shooting at an active festival, the film makes deft use of a number of songs, creating a soundtrack that is as intimate, unique, and memorable as the film itself.
In closing, this film is really about moments, strung together like a reminiscence, punctuated by song. It’s beautiful and ugly. It’s vital and human, moving and raw. I loved it.