Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling in Song to Song

Song to Song
may not be the best movie playing in town this week, but it’s surely the most important. The film is the latest by Terrence Malick, one of the handful of working narrative directors who has created what critic and director Paul Schrader once termed a transcendental film style. Like Yasujro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer (the directors Schrader considered in his 1972 study of transcendental cinema), Malick operates in a unique cinematic language that evokes a spiritual presence in the material world. Song to Song is not explicitly concerned with spirituality, as other Malick films are, yet the spiritual force that animates virtually all his work is impossible to overlook. Whether the film succeeds as a whole is less important than the seriousness of its intent—it’s worth experiencing and grappling with.

We live in a strong era for transcendental film style, if you consider the ongoing work of Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son, Russian Ark), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Cemetery of Splendor), experimentalists like Nathaniel Dorsky and Phil Solomon, and such spiritual atheists as Bruno Dumont (L’Humanité, Outside Satan) and Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux).

Even so Malick has come closest to trailblazers like Bresson in his development of a filmic language all his own. That language, though frequently aped, is dense in a way that cannot be easily manufactured. It’s rooted in collagelike editing that pieces scenes together out of multiple disconnected takes, frequently interrupting the action with cutaways to nature imagery. The camera is almost always in motion. The performances, which tend to have more in common with silent cinema than contemporary cinema, are rooted in the physicality of the actors. Malick likes to speak to his performers while filming, telling them to do or say things so he can elicit spontaneous behavior. In editing he compiles these bits of behavior to organize scenes around series of uninhibited action. The soundtrack is usually just as dense as the imagery, layering fragments of classical music (or in the case of Song to Song, rock and rap), voice-over narration from multiple characters, and snatches of diegetic dialogue that come in and out unexpectedly.

What does all this add up to? A celebration of the abundance of existence and a representation of the fleetingness of human lives within it. It’s as though Malick wants us to imagine how life on earth might appear, alternately, to a higher, all-seeing power or to little, gnatlike angels flitting about us. Despite the disorienting complexity of Malick’s imagery, however, his stories and characterizations tend to be fairly simple. People in his movies are presented in terms of states of being, which tend to remain static within scenes. And his narratives could be summarized within a couple of sentences. Nevertheless Malick’s style often makes the narratives seem complicated—sometimes it’s difficult to determine what’s going on. (I’m not sure what Val Kilmer’s doing in Song to Song, for instance, and I couldn’t tell you the exact nature of the relationship between Ryan Gosling’s character and singer Lykke Li, who turns in a spirited cameo.) This adds to the sense that the characters’ moment-to-moment intentions are less important than their existence and their proximity to that transcendental force always hovering around the drama.

Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Gosling in <i>Song to Song</i>
Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Gosling in Song to Song

In Song to Song the characters come closest to experiencing that force when they experience romantic love. The film centers on a young guitarist named Faye (Rooney Mara) who’s trying to get ahead in the Austin music scene. When the story begins she’s living with a superrich producer played by Michael Fassbender. The producer takes a shine to another musician played by Ryan Gosling, who falls in love with Faye during a trip that all three characters take to Mexico. Gosling and Mara become an item and Fassbender seduces and marries a waitress (Natalie Portman). Gosling and Mara split up, see other people, get back together, then repeat the cycle again, while Fassbender descends into drug abuse and sexual excess, which puts emotional strain on his spiritually inclined wife. Malick shifts between each major character’s point of view, but he only presents the characters when they’re in heightened states of amorousness, sadness, anger, or euphoria. As such, the film can feel almost monotonously concerned with the life-changing powers of love and art or the devastation one feels in their absence.

That single-mindedness isn’t the only quality that may make Song to Song off-putting to viewers who aren’t sympathetic to Malick’s style. The snippets of dialogue and narration tend to be reductive, communicating either banalities or straightforward descriptions of emotions that sound like adolescent poetry. (Early on Mara intones, “I wanted to be free the way [Fassbinder’s character] was. I went on seeing him. I let myself be smashed.” Most of the narration is around this level.) As in To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, Malick often depicts life-affirming happiness through images of beautiful young women spinning in circles. There are other risible moments, such as when Gosling and Mara, in their puppy-love phase, apply lipstick to their cheeks like war paint and make goofy faces for each other. I’d argue, though, that Malick is less concerned with what his characters do than with how they do it. The consistent spontaneity of the performances suggests a visual analogue to birdsong or the sound of wind—it’s another way that Malick stresses the ephemerality of our time on this planet.

One thing that distinguishes Song to Song from Malick’s other recent output is that the film doesn’t present every location as either awesome or awful. From the jumble of images comes a loving feel for contemporary Austin (where, according to a recent Texas Monthly profile of Malick, the director has lived and actively socialized for decades), its melange of architectural styles and its vibrant music scene; life may be fleeting, but one can still manage to feel at home somewhere. In a poignant moment that occurs about halfway into the film, Malick goes from Mara narrating “Sometimes I admire what a hypocrite I am” to a shot of Gosling breaking a piñata at a family gathering—even when a person feels least comfortable in her own skin, she’s never far from the forces of family and belonging that bind us to life.

In his restless shifting from one character’s perspective to another, Malick conveys that those forces are accessible to anyone. That’s a deeply benevolent message, perhaps the most optimistic we’re going to find in American movies this year. It comes from a sincere spiritualism and a love for assembling movies that carries over to a love for anyone watching them.