For all his visual grandeur and existential musings, as well as various off screen myths that don’t necessarily directly inform his oeuvre but permeate its existence anyway, Terrence Malick’s films can typically be boiled down to the most elemental of emotions, like love, pure love, a love that finds humanity and nature, free from industry and egotism, in blissful harmony. That is the hopeful end point of his sorta, kinda protagonists, Faye (Rooney Mara) and the enigmatically named B.V. (Ryan Gosling), of his latest opus, “Song to Song”, set in and around the thriving music scene of Austin, Texas.
At a poolside bacchanal hosted by music impresario Cook (Michael Fassbender), Faye and B.V. (not so) subtly check each other out, a grin-inducing evocation of sudden physical attraction, before a jump cut leads to a moment quoting “Begin Again” with the aspirant romantic pair connected to one another by earbuds, a sonic cum spiritual connection, and all rendered under a flawless magic hour sky, one the camera makes sure to drink in, like the sensual ogler it always is in the hands of cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki. From there, Faye and B.V. indulge in extended bouts of wandering, looking and touching, each other and other things that catch their fancy, rendered in those swooping, roaming wide angle shots where Malick becomes excavator, seeking to extract myriad individual moments of beauty, confusion and ugliness to weave a patented tapestry of Everything.
It is nothing if not traditional Malick-ian courtship, which in recent films has wavered in plausible passion, dependent upon the actors within those frames to completely breathe them to life. Thankfully Gosling, deploying that little grin made famous at the Oscars, and Mara, reciprocating with a grin of her own, whether bashful or faux-confrontational, share a certifable chemistry by exuding a punch drunk playfulness. That playfulness is eventually compromised by jealousy, mostly effectively rendered when B.V. questions Faye about her other relationships and the camera becomes his point-of-view, leaving Mara to stare right at us as she wraps and unwraps herself form billowing curtains, like she is trying to avoid his gaze.
That jealousy stems from Cook, who becomes something like the stand-in for the music industry, lecherous and a little unhinged, as if upon assuming his place in the power structure it becomes much less about the music than wielding that power, for good and for bad, mostly for bad. He helps Faye out, yes, even as he becomes romantically involved with her, underscoring how business and pleasure eternally mix. And when Faye ditches him for B.V. then Cook hooks up with the next woman he sees, a waitress, Rhonda (Natalie Portman), down on her luck and receptive to his seduction, carnally adventurous even as she is simultaneously presented as Christian, a unique parallel that leads to her unraveling.
Portman’s notably skimpy costuming also allows for fairly lustful bouts of Male Gazing, call it that or not, and the gazing goes into hyperdive as B.V. and Faye drift apart, leading her to an older French woman (Bérénice Marlohe) who just sort of mystically appears and effortlessly instigates a relationship, though the way Malick films it, for all the nudity, feels more primly buttoned up than the roughhousing in which B.V. and Cook also occasionally engage, unwitting, or not, bro-ish flirting that unfortunately Malick is too afraid to treat with the same wantoness as similar moments with women. Alas.
This relationship detour, as well as the detours B.V. makes, and as well as the detours into Faye and B.V.’s respective home lives where all is not copacetic, all achieve a strange languor, not unlike the middle passages of “To the Wonder” which played like a deliberate delaying tactic. After all, the main characters’ pensive, ponderous voiceovers in “Song to Song” make clear that they still pine for one another, and so, like the lazy Colorado River that becomes a silent, watery Greek Chorus, they wind their way back to one another, rolling and tumbling, “song to song, kiss to kiss” as Faye says in an early voiceover, a fine equivalent for Malick’s movie themselves, which often adhere to a notion of life being a sum of their moments.
And while the brass tacks of both the music business and making music are of little interest to Malick, that does not mean music has no bearing, as innumerable pop songs fade in on the soundtrack and then quickly fade back out, mere glimpses, shooting stars seared into your memory, not unlike an impromptu dance that re-imagines Del Shannon’s “Runaway” in the image of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video under the night sky at Austin’s Long Center on its illuminated ring beam. There is so much discourse on Malick these days, good and bad and worse, but when he finds his way to moments like this one, which he does more often than not, and your heart skips a beat, what else can you do but surrender?