Released on DVD and download by StudioCanal, the history of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song goes back to the summer of 2011, when attendees at Austin, Texas’s famous South by Southwest music festival saw the director filming Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara in the crowds. Malick had just won the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life, and his reluctance to give interviews had created a mystique around his strange, singular, timeless work that few directors have ever matched. We knew, at that point, that he was busy editing his follow-up to The Tree of Life, which was to star Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko. It was rumoured, too, that The Tree of Life’s famous ‘creation’ scene would be spun off into its own film called Voyage of Time. Now Malick fans were scrambling to find out more about this new project. Rumour had it that he was now working on multiple films with a sprawling shared cast of major stars; Gosling, Mara, Cate Blanchett, Antonio Banderas, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Benicio del Toro, Michael Fassbender and Imogen Poots. Even Gosling admitted he didn’t know how many films Malick was planning to make out of his huge, improvised shoot.
Six years later and all the films from this period of activity have been released, and another – Radegund, reportedly a major departure – has been conceived and shot. Who knows how history will judge them, but for now the closely linked five-film cycle that begins with The Tree of Life and ends with Song to Song has damaged Malick’s reputation. Those of us who dreamed of him as an itinerant, mystic, unknowable poet-philosopher have had to confront the possibility that he might actually be Christian Bale’s character from Knight of Cups, moping through Hollywood pool parties fending off beautiful women. Ironically, his decision to tackle present-day settings for the first time in his career has left his work looking worryingly dated compared to a younger poetic realist like Barry Jenkins or Lynne Ramsey. All those interchangeable women, all those first-world problems – is this really what was churning around in the head of the man who made Badlands?
Well, maybe. Song to Song at least opens with a stretch of film that shows off the benefits of Malick’s late style, using jump-cuts and voice over to economically set up a complex, long-standing love triangle between Mara, Gosling and Fassbender’s characters. Having sketched in the plot Malick then moves on to exploring the people and their world, which in this case is the fringes of the modern rock scene. Say what you will about Knight of Cups, but Malick does at least know what Hollywood life is like. His evocation of the modern music scene is less sure-footed. There are brief clips of luminous body-painted ravers, and you’d think that cinema’s leading comparative religion student would at least be interested in a kind of music which calls itself ‘trance’ – but no. Malick points his camera at the spectacle, then moves on without getting under its skin.
Even the spectacle, normally the saving grace of a weaker Malick film, is looking undernourished. If you’ve seen any of Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki’s previous collaborations, you can probably figure out how they’ll shoot each location – ultra-wide lens, low on the ground, dutch angle if possible. The faster-than-usual editing also means the images have less time to linger, though it does at least create one great moment, as a pull-back on Gosling and Mara dancing suddenly reveals Fassbender watching them from the shadows – and then, just as you’ve recognised him, he’s gone in another jump-cut. It’s not a crime to have an unmistakable personal style, of course, but unlike, say, The New World all this visual excess doesn’t really help the viewer discern the movie’s themes. The sex scenes, which have become a divisive point of Malick’s post-Tree of Life work, seem to be there to show the seedy, hollow hedonism of Fassbender’s character Cook, but really they look as graceful and raunch-free as the tender love scene between Affleck and Rachel McAdams in To The Wonder. The obsessive need to find beauty in everything is now occluding Malick’s actual moral and intellectual points.
In the middle of all this, the actors respond to the increasingly free-form nature of a Terrence Malick set with strong performances. Fassbender, in particular, is excellent, jumping around and manhandling people like a cross between Mick Jagger and Oliver Reed in drunken chat-show mode. On paper, this lairy, womanising music promoter is the least Malickian element in the whole film – hard to imagine him turning up in Days of Heaven – but Fassbender seems very attuned to his director’s ideas, and is able to suggest something Dionysian in Cook’s excesses, like the whole thing is a misguided quest for self-knowledge through extremes. Mara, too, makes a good account of herself as the film’s central character Faye, and the film deserves credit for handling her same-sex relationship (with Skyfall’s Bérénice Marlohe) in a casual, unsensational way.
At the root of it all, you can’t shake the feeling that Malick just doesn’t like rock or dance music enough to do this justice. Faye is briefly seen strumming a guitar, but we don’t really hear any of her music, and the music-industry cameos tend towards canonical figures like Iggy Pop and John Lydon in lieu of anyone more leftfield who might be able to truly illuminate a connection between Malick’s world and this one. (In fairness, Lykke Li and Patti Smith both do fine work in longer appearances) There is some diverting stuff in Song to Song – the Val Kilmer cameo is already semi-legendary in its bizarreness – but the philosophical content that we’ve come to expect from Malick is missing. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life was at least the product of a thought-through, deeply felt worldview. Song to Song ends up suggesting that maybe art isn’t the be-all and end-all, maybe there’s as much dignity in working for an oil company instead. Coming from someone who makes his living filming A-list stars twirling in cornfields at sunset, that’s a pretty irksome message. Let’s hope that Radegund – which sees Malick connecting with a moral and timely theme of pacifism and resistance – shows him feeling a bit more impassioned.