Terrence Malick’s cinematic achievements, which includes nine films, have grown increasingly abstract, if not opaque, in recent years. After two decades of silence following his highly praised Days of Heaven, Malick returned with The Thin Red Line (TRL) and The New World (TNW) before falling silent again. Since 2011’s Tree of Life (TOL), Malick has been on something of tear, releasing four more films in the span of six years. Many critics, including some of Malick’s longtime admirers, were nonplussed. How could the man who had unsettled and enchanted audiences with nature’s indifference—and transcendence of—man’s inhumanity to man in TRL and created one of the greatest films of the 00s in TNW descended into student-film madness wrapped in trite philosophical-religious sentimentality devoid of coherent plots? Defenders of Malick argue that such criticism does not apply to TOL, and they’re probably right. While digressive and ethereal at points, TOL recapitulates portions of the Book of Job while returning to one of Malick’s favorite themes, namely the luminosity of creation and the grace to be found in everyday life.
Song to Song (STS), Malick’s latest offering, is far less easy to follow and comprehend than TOL or its predecessors. Set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene, STS primarily follows the destructive love patterns of four individuals—two male, two female—while blending in musician cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith. Michael Fassbender’s Cook, a philandering record producer whose immense wealth is inversely proportional to the vacuity of his soul, is a rarity for a Malick movie: a truly irredeemable character. Even Nick Nolte’s Colonel Gordon Tall in TRL, who orders a reckless and bloody assault in the hopes of impressing his superiors, is warranted some sympathy; after years of bootlicking and sacrifice, Malick’s version of the Battle of Guadalcanal is his final moment to shine, to prove to himself and his family that his martial life wasn’t a failure. Cook, on the other hand, feeds on the bodies and souls of those lured by his hollow promises of love and success. There is something almost satanic about Cook, the way he is often found leering at his prey, studying the faults of others before moving in to exploit them for his own personal satisfaction.
Less revolting, though not completely so, is Ryan Gosling’s BV, a musician who locks arm with Cook while carrying on a painful romance with Cook’s former assistant, Rooney Mara’s Faye. Faye, as the story unveils, has—and continues—to carry on a sexual relationship with Cook even while trying to be with BV. Faye is as close to a central character as STS is allowed to have, and while many of her voiceovers early in the film come across as sophomoric brooding mixed with half-formed musings, by the film’s end she becomes Malick’s conduit for mercy, love, and forgiveness. Left on the peripheries is Natalie Portman’s Rhonda, STS’s only obvious Christian (albeit superficially so) whose relationship with Cook ends in tragedy.
While often linear, it should be noted that STS’s final act cuts back and forth in time, a device whose power is marred by Malick’s failure to draw clear lines of demarcation between past, present, and future. The ending, which borders on the fantastical, may be just that—an idea, a hope, a longing for a love that never ends, a love that endures all things with patience and humility. That message, though beautiful, is difficult to trace through the movie’s earlier acts, some of which are shockingly gratuitous for a Malick movie.. Love his work or hate it, Malick has often favored subtle intimacy over graphic depictions of sexuality. His choice to rely on the latter in this movie can be interpreted in a number of ways, the most charitable view being his desire to juxtapose transient carnality with transcendent love. The less charitable view is that Malick, now into his 70s, has simply become a dirty old man.