In the case of Song to Song, It seems pointless to complain about lack of plot, about drifting faux-poetic voice over and wide, handheld close ups. Each Malick film is a variation on the same style. It’s like criticising Beach House or The Fall because ‘all their songs sound the same’. The formal elements of this style shift slightly with each passing film, but it can be difficult to appreciate them in a vacuum.
Song to Song has been in the works under various titles since 2011. Reports of Christian Bale, Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes within the expected love triangle that characterises The Auteur’s work have obviously been superseded by the cutting room floor. What we have instead is, to some extent, a retread of the expected Malickian themes and characters, this time set within the music industry and featuring a host of other cameos from the likes of Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Val Kilmer.
That said, this feels less essential than any Malick film before it. Even the relatively minor To The Wonder was so clearly a transitional work in its technical experimentation that it demanded to be seen. Song to Song has much to give, but it also tests patience and requires a sifting through for nuggets of gold.
Malick’s technique of capturing improvisation has given him a documentary-like eye, scenes at SXSW or in Mexico are vibrant. It is here that we learn the stunning revelation that Malick listens to Die Antwoord. He also manages to make the music an extension of the form, fragments of songs washing in and out along with voiceover and score. Along with a more intense edit that, shot length decrease, the fragmentary, free associative zen state that Malick reaches for is achieved. It is at the expense of character empathy or interest, but for some, the pleasures of Malick’s playfulness and joy for cinema will be enough.
Unlike Knight of Cups, which presented the Entourage view of wealth’s alienating excesses, here the characters do not seem even aware of their wealth, so engulfed they are by their desires and emotions.
Malick’s camera depersonalises, an almost fisheye lens which never looks directly at its characters. Their detachment is reminiscent Antonioni, who Malick must be citing in his use of vast spaces. Scenes atop a mountain look like the surface of a different planet, and the characters frolic in puddles under vast buildings or crawl through modernist spaces, constantly searching for their own transcendent experience.
Fassbender’s energy even seems to recall Richard Harris in Red Desert. Calculating, manipulative but magnetic, Fassbender provides the perfect counterpoint for the sensual internality the Ryan Gosling portrays. Rooney Mara is given the classic Malickian choice between grace and strength, nature and industry.
All of Maick’s later period wrestles with a godless world. Here one wonders if he even finds it. Characters look for spirituality, for meaning in death, in feeling (a monologue from Patti Smith is a highlight in this regard) but the world of commercial music, of the rock concert, their only church, does not give it to them. Without much to say on the nature of fame, or God, one wonders what Song to Song is trying to explore, if anything. The way the characters are positioned against each other can be moving but is more often than not weightless, as one working title suggsted. Knight of Cups felt as though you were watching the filmmaking process, which gave a brilliant spin on the Hollywood Insider movie. Song to Song lacks that sense of discovery, feeling more like a collection of outtakes or b-sides than a real album.