Terrence Malick, one of the most distinctive and invaluable auteurs of our time, has had a spot of difficulty in recent years living up to the peerless standards he set for himself with his earliest masterpieces: 1974's "Badlands," 1978's "Days of Heaven," and 1998's "The Thin Red Line
." As he has ramped up output in this last decade, his filmsmost notably 2013's "To the Wonder
" and 2016's "Knight of Cups
"have become increasingly ineffectual and esoteric, collections of pretty pictures, overabundant scenes of field twirling and adults childishly chasing after each other, and ceaseless existential voiceover narrations in search of believable characters and focused narratives. Malick's ruminative style is one of his steadfast calling cards, but his visual motifs had become clichés, threatening at times to become parodies of themselves. It is with heartening exhilaration to announce, then, the Malick of old has finally returned. Allowing for more than superficial character development and providing room to breathe in its snapshots of human figures struggling to carve out their own place in the world, "Song to Song" is loaded frame to frame with a stirring grace and unforced profundity reminding of the filmmaker's best work.
Against a backdrop of the burgeoning, bustling music scene of Austin, Texas, the lives of three individuals and those whom they influence thread like a guitar-stringed tapestry. Aspiring young musicians Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) are both, in their own ways, seduced by the allure of music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), who they see as their potential entry point into making their professional dreams come true. Faye and Cook have already begun a relationship when she meets, and falls, for BV. It's a troubled love triangle headed for a breakdown, with Faye hesitant to open up about what has been going on behind the back of the manBVshe truly cares for. Eventually, new romantic entanglements take shape: former kindergarten teacher/current waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), her idealistic outlook gradually corrupted by Cook's unsavory lifestyle; slightly older divorcée Amanda (Cate Blanchett), with whom BV shares a happy if fleeting bond; and French transplant Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), whose adoration for Faye is not evenly reciprocated.
"Song to Song" is alive with a beauty that goes deeper than aesthetic pleasantry, its loose, observational storytelling ringing with honesty even as it delves into impressionistic technique. Terrence Malick is less concerned with establishing timelines than he is in capturing feelings of yearning, regret, contentment, and a drive for meaning. Though music plays an indelible role throughout, it is used predominately as shading and complement to matters of the heart. If substantive scenes of Faye and BV performing are few and far betweenthis is the one area where a great movie might have had the chance to become a brilliant onethe aching, irresistible cinematic spell is never broken.
Whereas Christian Bale's near-comatose protagonist in "Knight of Cups
" wandered around like a mute, empty shell, the people on view here feel transcendently real, their flaws and vulnerabilities the result of lives being lived and learned. Faye, exquisitely played with a panged emotional intimacy by Rooney Mara (2016's "Lion
"), isn't above using people to get ahead, then recognizes how far she's been misled. The further she drifts away from what she wants, the more she worries she is letting down her concerned father (Brady Coleman) and herself. More than that, she is aware she only has one chance at life; either her aspirations come to fruition, or they never will. Mara's chemistry is very much apparent with Ryan Gosling (2016's "La La Land
"), unabashedly likable and dreamy as BV; it is easy to get behind these two, to want them to work things out even after Faye comes clean, little by little, with the details of her dalliance with Cook.
Despite one's allegiance with Faye and BV, there is plenty of empathy to go around. Malick cares about everyone in front of his and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's (2015's "The Revenant
") roving, mesmeric lens. There's Michael Fassbender's (2016's "The Light Between Oceans
") Cook, swinging around his money and power without hardly meaning to, extending a false sense of concern for others when he's lost sight of everyone but himself. There's Natalie Portman's (2013's "Thor: The Dark World
") quietly devastating Rhonda, a young woman who misplaces her dreams in a very different way from Faye, who searches for purpose while struggling to work her way out of the haunting abyss in which she finds herself. Also leaving impressions with brief screen time: Cate Blanchett's (2015's "Carol
") kind, sensitive Amanda; Bérénice Marlohe's (2012's "Skyfall
") sensual, loving Zoey; Holly Hunter (2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
") as Miranda, Rhonda's affectionate mother, and real-life musicians Lykke Li and Patti Smith as versions of themselves, making key impacts on BV and Faye's outlook.
"Song to Song" tells of a search for tangible connections, the kind which do not just fill days but fulfill souls. By allowing his characters to speak of their own personal experiences and not overpowering with disconnected philosophical wonderings, Terrence Malick has arguably made one of his most raw, searching, impactful features. Set in modern-day Texas yet universal in scope, the film is a magic-hour travelogue of landscapes, faces and lifelines. It also, for that matter, is one of bewitching sentimentality and hope for a certain ideal, where what we do takes a backseat to who we love. Confidently sprawling and startlingly clear-eyed, "Song to Song" is of a whole with itself, always lyrical and often breathtaking to watch take shape.