Terrence Malick’s “Song To Song” (2017)

This article is excerpted from “The Freefall Triptych”, Part 4 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Notable Festivals: SXSW

Since the emergence of his latter-day aesthetic with 1998’s THE THIN RED LINE, director Terrence Malick has seemingly pursued a relentless quest to discover the unknown edges of narrative and visual expression.  This all-consuming adventure into the opaque inner mysteries of our shared existence promises untold revelations and philosophical riches– yet it stands to utterly destroy the adventurer in the process.  Once heralded as one of American cinema’s great visionaries, Malick’s recent experimental forays into nonlinear storytelling have seen his box office draw-power dwindle, his audience having splintered into various factions.  Judging by the near-universal praise of 2011’s THE TREE OF LIFE, Malick had seemingly found the perfect balance of his lyrical, expressionistic technique  — so structured as to evoke snapshots of memory, and convey the impression of a life lived beyond the confines of the film’s frame.  His subsequent efforts, however, have drawn exasperated criticism — if not outright hostility — for their ever-deeper incursions into abstract storytelling.  At the same time, Malick’s die-hard fans have only grown more ready to embrace his flagrant disregard for cinematic convention.  Indeed, in a landscape increasingly populated by compound superhero franchises and tenuously-linked cinematic “universes”, these fans are vehemently arguing that Malick’s work is more vital than ever.  

It’s difficult to see the lay of the land from sea level; one must gain some kind of elevation to see the beautiful coherence of the earth’s chaotic topography.  The same could be said of Malick’s sequence of narrative features starting with 2012’s TO THE WONDER and culminating with 2017’s SONG TO SONG.  On their surface, these films seem to be little more than increasingly-opaque experimental dramas about the existential identity crises of their upper-to-middle class characters.  But taken as one unified work comprised of three distinct movements, these films take on added meaning, further evidencing humanity’s cosmic interconnectedness while shining a floodlight on a personal history that Malick had previously shrouded in secrecy.  To describe these films as “autobiographical” would be something of a misnomer— while Malick may certainly be drawing from his own life experiences here, the narrative proceedings are coated with the thick veneer of fiction. These three films provide less of an insight into Malick’s past as they do the profound forces that shape his creativity.  To also call these three films a “trilogy” suggests they are connected together sequentially by plot, as if one sustained narrative thread was strung through them. They are connected, but more so by theme and aesthetic rather than story.  A more accurate term might be “triptych”— a word borrowed from the fine art world to describe a set of three works meant to be appreciated together as a singular idea or expression.  As the sequence of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015) and SONG TO SONG doesn’t yet have a formalized name to bind them together, I’ll call it Malick’s “Freefall Triptych”, taken from what could almost be a throwaway line uttered by Michael Fassbender’s character in SONG TO SONG in justifying his casual nihilism: “it’s all freefall”.  Indeed, it’s hard to think of a better word to embody the tone of these works than “freefall”— the various characters seem to follow a uniform, downward-pointing arc in which they tumble into an existential void, desperately flailing for any kind of toehold in the form of vice’s fleeting and empty happiness.

As the culmination of his Freefall Triptych, Malick’s SONG TO SONG expectedly maximizes the movement’s core conceits, doubling down on the most evocative — and polarizing — aspects of his latter-day aesthetic.  Whereas TO THE WONDER drew from his self-imposed exile in Paris as well as his years in Oklahoma, and KNIGHT OF CUPS pulled from various episodes during his time as a Hollywood screenwriter, SONG TO SONG tackles a story set within the tumultuous music scene of Malick’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas.  The film follows the template established by his previous two films, in which Malick foregoes a written script in favor of organic improvisation through the entirety of the shoot— a risky endeavor that nonetheless captures the spontaneity and vibrancy of life as it actively unfolds.  The subtle, expressionistic narrative that would emerge from this unconventional technique details the shifting passions and allegiances that swirl around a love quadrangle comprised of Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Natalie Portman. As a sensitive and soulful musician named BV, Gosling may seem the obvious candidate for the film’s key protagonist, but that honor arguably goes instead to Mara’s curious and sexually-volatile guitarist, Faye.  They meet at a party hosted by Fassbender’s Cook — a wealthy music producer — and subsequently embark on a whirlwind romance across Austin (as well as a brief detour into Mexico). Unbeknownst to BV, Faye and Cook have a sexual past and present of their own, actively conducting a secret relationship right under BV’s nose. Try as she might, Faye finds it difficult to swear off Cook entirely; his restless hedonism and casual, Lucifer-esque nihilism is irresistibly magnetic, drawing everyone into the oblivion of his dense orbit like a supermassive black hole.  For all his flaws, Cook receives an offer of redemption in the guise of Portman’s Rhonda, an ex-teacher who’s fallen on hard times and turned to waitressing at a diner to pay the bills. Portman presents Rhonda as a quietly devout woman from a lower-middle-class background, infusing her characterization with a melancholy aura. She tries to keep an open mind about her new husband’s decadent lifestyle, growing increasingly despondent as Cook ventures down a path she can’t bring herself to follow. Malick surrounds these four with a sprawling ensemble cast that finds established names like Val Kilmer, Holly Hunter and Berenice Marlohe working alongside high-profile musicians playing themselves.  Cate Blanchett’s presence as Amanda, an elegant but emotionally-cold woman who briefly dates BV speaks to SONG TO SONG’s back-to-back shoot with KNIGHT OF CUPS (1)— as does the casting of Christian Bale, whose part was ultimately cut from the finished film despite appearing prominently in widely-circulated set photos.  Singer/songwriter Lykke Li delivers the most substantial of performances from Malick’s collection of real-world musicians, playing an ex-girlfriend of BV’s who briefly re-enters his life during a rough patch with Faye.  Further cameos from recognizable acts like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Lips, and Florence Welch lend SONG TO SONG an undeniable rock authenticity that enriches the film’s improvisatory energy.  

Beginning with his regular producing team of Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda, and Ken Kao, Malick retains the key collaborators that have made the distinct technical components of his Freefall Triptych so stylistically cohesive.  Since their first joint effort in 2005’s THE NEW WORLD, Malick’s partnership with cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki has resulted in some of the most awe-inspiring images in recent cinematic memory.  SONG TO SONG — their fifth project together — marks the further refinement of their unique visual aesthetic towards its outermost reaches.  This includes the gleeful, if not reckless, mixing of 35mm film with a variety of video formats that run the gamut from high-end digital cinema cameras to iPhones.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what format is used when, suggesting that Malick and Lubezki’s improvisatory approach compelled them to go with their gut and pick up whatever camera felt right for a given scene, rather than work from a predetermined technical dogma.  A 2.35:1 aspect ratio helps to unify these disparate, seemingly-incongruous formats, culminating in an impressionistic effect that evokes the multi-textured tapestry of memory. Beyond its pointing to Malick’s increasing interest in the volatile alchemy of various format combinations, this conceit also reinforces his idiosyncratic approach to coverage.  The restless camera rarely sits still to observe its subjects, preferring to duck and weave around on handheld and steadicam rigs like an aggressive ethereal spirit. Malick and Lubezki arrange other components of their shooting style to compensate for the organic chaos of their coverage approach, like the adoption of a sprawling depth of field and wide angle lenses that create a spherical distortion on the edge of the frame when utilized for close-ups.

Lubezki and returning production designer Jack Fisk work in tandem to create evocative environments for Malick’s characters to inhabit, comprised entirely of found locations that Fisk spartanly dresses to suggest a curated energy rather than one of lived-in authenticity.  There is a deliberate clash of architectural styles— home-y bungalows, cosmopolitan skyscrapers, and even ancient stone pyramids — their varying contours predetermining the listless flow of action within while allowing Malick to further explore the unique ways in which we inhabit and move through space.  SONG TO SONG finds the members of its central love quadrangle cavorting through these striking spaces in an improvised fashion, with the camera reacting to their spontaneous decisions rather than imposing a set path for them to follow.  Fisk’s dressing of said sets in a 360 degree fashion is invaluable towards this end, as is a lighting scheme that prioritizes available illumination— a free-floating camera would otherwise repeatedly capture film lights, destroying our suspension of disbelief.  This is arguably where Malick and Lubezki’s continued collaborations bear the most fruit, having developed a visual shorthand that employs backlighting so as to maintain continuity in the context of a fickle, fluctuating light source. The sun makes up for its volatile unreliability by offering a quality that electrical film lights can’t quite replicate— the dim, romantic glow of magic hour.  It’s become a common in-joke that Malick, like the common Instagrammer, can’t resist his sunsets, but their recurring presence throughout his filmography speaks to his unique ability to capture creation’s fleeting beauty and impermanence; his films feel alive in a way that others do not, each one containing a multitude of lifetimes that are experienced simultaneously.

Malick’s signature snapshot-style dramaturgy — executed in SONG TO SONG by a trusted editing team comprised of Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corbin, and Keith Fraase — reinforces this visual conceit, which can be described as “multiple lives lived as one”.  This stream-of-consciousness approach results in a dynamic, cosmic scale that is at once both unnervingly intimate and broadly communal; a churning brew of suggestive vignettes, jump cuts, and concise metaphorical imagery bonded together by oblique, lyrical voiceovers that effortlessly hop in and out of multiple perspectives.  Granted, Malick’s singular storytelling aesthetic doesn’t exactly facilitate a straightforward or undramatic post-production process. The first cut of SONG TO SONG was reportedly eight hours long, and the arduous process of cutting the picture down to size would subsequently drag itself out over the ensuing three years, forcing Malick to re-approach financiers for completion funds (2).  More so than any of his previous films, music plays an integral role in the overall fabric of SONG TO SONG — acting not just as an auditory backdrop to a story about the recording industry but also as a bridge between narrative beats that evoke Mara’s wistfully-voiced desire to live for the moment.  Malick has always used pre-recorded needledrops in his work, stretching back to BADLANDS’ use of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer”, but SONG TO SONG finds the director — for the first time in his career — foregoing an original score in favor of a musical landscape comprised entirely of sourced cues.  Said tracks span a wide range of musical genres and traditions, combining the indie rock and EDM characteristic of Austin’s music scene with Malick’s personal taste for vintage rockabilly, gospel hymnals and classical cues like Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” or Zbigniew Preisner’s “From The Abyss”.  Beyond Lykke Li’s cameo performance, her breakout track “I Know Places” gives a key passage a heavy melancholic presence that reflects the characters’ sense of self-alienation.

Befitting its place as the capper to Malick’s “Freefall Triptych”, SONG TO SONG plumbs the same thematic territory as TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS— indeed, the same artistic ideas and values that Malick has explored in all his work.  This is not to say that SONG TO SONG’s thematic subtext is stale, or even inert.  The beauty of his expressive visual aesthetic means that even though he may be technically saying the same thing, he has an infinite amount of ways to say it.  As such, SONG TO SONG puts its own fierce spin on Malick’s brooding meditations, infusing them with the reckless passions of youth.  The least overtly-religious of all his films, SONG TO SONG nevertheless finds Malick’s characters reveling in the purity and unconditional mercy of creation.  With the exception of a short sequence where BV comes across a quaint church in the Mexican countryside, it is the natural world that serves as their house of worship.  Whereas TO THE WONDER’s Oklahoma was almost entirely agrarian, and KNIGHT OF CUPS’ California was almost entirely urban, SONG TO SONG’s Austin rests squarely in the convergence of these two realms.  The boundaries between the two are frequently blurred— indeed, most of the film’s chosen locations seem to deliberately emphasize a manmade structure’s attempts to incorporate the exterior world into its design.  Infinity pools lap up against the ocean horizon; a huge glass facade essentially turns the grass lawn beyond into another room; a condo in a high-rise tower allows its occupants to quite literally live amidst the clouds.  It’s no coincidence that most of these locales belong to Fassbender’s Cook, who seems to have no less than three houses scattered across the city. Despite projecting an outward veneer of extreme confidence, Cook’s seeming inability to choose between the rural and industrial worlds robs him of a genuine identity.  There is no internal conflict like there is for BV or Faye— just a crushing void that he attempts to fill with the fleeting pleasures of sex, drugs, and alcohol.

A literal black hole of vice and internal decay, Cook’s dense gravity threatens to stripmine the innocence of those caught in his orbit.  To associate with him is to make a deal with the devil — he can make you the next rock star, but it may very well cost you your soul. Naturally, BV, Faye, and Rhonda come to be caught up in his swirling, lustful vortex, begetting personal crucibles of their own.  Each experiences a Malickian loss of innocence tailored to their own specific archetypical identities: idealism being BV’s, sexuality being Faye’s, and loyalty being Rhonda’s. BV’s idealism drives his pursuit of a music career, and what initially appears to be a promising association with Cook leads to a friction-causing disillusion that will cause him to second-guess his aspirations.  Faye’s fluid sexuality enables a kind of personal liberty that’s driven by a genuine passion for life, but Cook’s refusal to honor the purity of her relationship to BV decays her sense of self, constricting her freedoms while muddling her ideals. Rhonda’s loyalty to family — evidenced by her close relationship with her mother — revels in its black-and-white simplicity; Cook’s devious ability to persuade and tempt those in his orbit convinces her to indulge her new husband’s insatiable sexual desires in the name of personal growth and experimentation.  However, her roots as a down-home Texas girl who loves her family and her God means that she isn’t emotionally equipped for Cook’s nihilistic carnival of the flesh, and the loss of her personal innocence results in an ideological unmooring with cataclysmic repercussions.

If critics tend to deride SONG TO SONG’s continued exploration of a small set of themes (and many certainly do), they cannot deny the surprising personal growth on the part of Malick’s artistic character.  For decades, the enigmatic filmmaker had cultivated a reclusive reputation, declining to do interviews with press or make public appearances in support of his work. Up until recently, he had been the very definition of letting “the work speak for itself”.  Imagine the film world’s surprise, then, when Malick himself showed up to partake in a post-screening interview after SONG TO SONG’s world premiere at South By Southwest.  It’s difficult to understate just how earth-shaking a development this was for the cinema community— the myth had revealed himself to be a man after all; flesh-and-blood, small, insignificant.  Like the rest of us. It remains to be seen whether Malick will maintain this level of visibility going forward; indeed, the surprise appearance was likely orchestrated by now-defunct distributor Broadgreen Entertainment in the hopes that his presence on the press circuit would gin up what otherwise promised to be a lackluster box office haul.  Its dismal financial performance and extremely-mixed critical reception seem to position SONG TO SONG as the nadir of Malick’s venerated filmography; the latest example of his radically-experimental aesthetic’s diminishing returns.  To those who actually sought out the film in theaters to make their own assessment, there seemed to be a general consensus that, for better or worse, Malick had reached the zenith of his experimental pursuits.  He had so plumbed the outer reaches of cinematic expression, it appeared there was very little left to discover.

That isn’t to say that SONG TO SONG has a passionate audience of its own.  To those who find a particular resonance within Malick’s latter-day frequency, the film is a compelling foray into the interior unknown and the mysteries of passion; its finger locked on the pulse of hipster cool thanks to its depiction of festival culture and its Austinite backdrop.  The film’s artistic value only deepens when considering its context as the conclusion to Malick’s Freefall Triptych; its mere existence serves to deepen and enrich the poeticism of TO THE WONDER and KNIGHT OF CUPS.  The reverse is also true.  I wrote before that to call these three films a “trilogy” suggests a linear or sequential ordering, but that’s not quite the effect that Malick seems to be after.  Just like the red, green, and blue channels of video combine to form a full-color electronic image, so too can the individual entries of the Freefall Triptych be overlaid on top of each other to form a greater picture of the cosmic interconnectedness of the modern human experience; their overlapping themes and contrasting settings serving to render a fuller image of their enigmatic creator.  With TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has seemingly created a new form of cinematic autobiography— oblique… lyrical… authentic in emotion (if not experience).  The more abstract his expression becomes, the more generous Malick is in revealing his most intimate self. These films, if nothing else, are a precious gift to cinema from one of its most reclusive, crucial and influential voices; their very existence nothing short of a miracle.

SONG TO SONG is currently available on 4K ultra high-definition Blu Ray via Broadgreen Entertainment.


Written by: Terrence Malick

Produced by: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda, Ken Kao

Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Keith Fraase, Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin