Making its way to Seattle last week for an unheralded run at the Pacific Place, then quickly dropped to a single show in town and shunted off to Tukwila’s Parkway Plaza was the latest film from the most singular artist working in mainstream American film today. As with every Terrence Malick film since his reemergence with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Song to Song has been met with baffled derision by much of what passes for the Hollywood intelligentsia, that dense Ouroboros of movie reviewers, Oscar bloggers and self-appointed box office gurus that pass as journalists in our debased world. The complaints are familiar, cheap and lazy, ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick doesn’t make movies like They expect movies to be made. Unable to conceive of possibilities beyond their narrow imaginations, his refusal to conform is viewed alternately as pretension or incompetence (see for example Christopher Plummer’s whining about Malick during The Tree of Life‘s Oscar campaign that Malick didn’t know how to edit films, a complaint (I believe, perhaps uncharitably) ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick cut out most of Plummer’s performance in The New World). Malick doesn’t make conventional movies, and it’s easier to snark about twirling and poetry (the nerve!) than it is to wrestle with what he does make.
Moving from the painful and transcendent autobiographical trilogy of The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, Malick in Song to Song takes a familiar and conventional story, a network narrative set around a single city, Austin, Texas, and turns it dramatically inward. Unlike Robert Altman’s Nashville, the film’s closest traditional analogue, or other network films like Magnolia, Short Cuts, or Slacker (based in a very different Austin), Malick’s characters are viewed entirely from within, their internal monologues isolating them from their interconnected world. This tension between connection and isolation underlies both the film’s many romantic subplots as well as the artistic desire that drives most of his heroes. The first half of the film follows Rooney Mara’s Faye (the only named character in the film, as far as I could tell), as she negotiates a new romance with Ryan Gosling’s aspiring musician while hiding from him the fact that she’s had a long-standing affair with his producer, the slimy Michael Fassbender. The trio hang out often, hinting at the potential for a 21st century Design for Living if only each character were a little more honest, but ultimately they all go their separate ways. The second half is the fallout, each character pursuing a new, ultimately doomed relationship (Fassbender with Natalie Portman, Gosling with Cate Blanchett, Mara with Bérénice Marlohe).
Mara is the primary protagonist here, and the film at times seems as much dedicated to documenting her face and mid-section as much as anything else (“Where’s the plot?” cry the sad-sacks). An aspiring musician whom we never see play or sing (she does play backup on stage a couple of times), she rarely speaks except in voice-over, but instead looks at the men and the world around her with a deviously embracing panoply of emotions: hunger, pain, confusion, wistfulness, coquetry, wigged. We live for the moments she bursts to life in dance and laughter. Gosling’s presence invites comparison with La La Land, a film about young artists in love that is otherwise different in every possible sense. He’s nicer here, but even Malick can’t remove the mannered twitchiness of his idea of flirtation. His relationship with Blanchett is the least dramatized in the film, the obvious inequality between her incandescence and his weightlessness is more than enough evidence to explain their doom. Portman builds on her strong work in Knight of Cups with the kind of working class girl performance she hasn’t really done since My Blueberry Nights. She’s a waitress seduced by Fassbender (and his wealth) who comes to witness firsthand the gross emptiness of materialism, lost in the hunger for perfection.
How Mara avoids her fate is one of the film’s central mysteries, but I think it must be through music, through her desire to express something outside of herself, not to merely acquire, or live comfortably, but to make something of and with her life. She has heroes to guide her: Iggy Pop, Val Kilmer, and above all Patti Smith. Gosling has that too, but he retreats from the world into a kind of mythic American past: small town, planted fields, oil rig. We leave the film with Mara and Gosling reunited (“Am I a good person?” a question that could be asked by everyone in every Malick film is answered with Gosling’s apology “I had the wrong heart in me”) and happy, in the moment rather than reaching for the unattainable. “This, only this.” she decides, though the soundtrack, over the closing credits, gives the film its true epitaph: “Baby it hurts to be alone.” It’s not complicated, but why should it be? As Smith says, “I could go on playing one chord for hours.”