Malick almost rocks ……
By Terrence Malick’s standards, this has been a prolific decade. Song To Song is his fifth film so far and there’s another one already lined up, which may also be released this year. A veritable flood.
Song To Song was shot straight after his previous offering, the tedious and turgid Knight Of Cups. And the two are very much companion pieces. Both feature the same actresses – Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman – but this time they have a different set of men in their lives. Just the two. Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling.
In contrast to the Hollywood setting of its predecessor, this is set against the backdrop of the music business, rock festivals in particular, with Fassbender as a promoter and Mara as a wannabe guitarist looking for a man who can help her – her constant refrain throughout the film. They get into what is essentially a physical relationship, but then she meets Gosling, another musician signed up by Fassbender, and they genuinely fall for each other. Except that she can’t escape her current relationship.
That’s just one of the triangular relationships under the microscope. It’s a deeply uncomfortable one, because both men know exactly what’s going on, but never mention it. It just simmers away below the surface, particularly where Fassbender is concerned. He moves on eventually, marries Portman – but thinks it would be fun to have threesomes with her and Mara. That sounds the death knell of her relationship with Gosling and he takes up with Cate Blanchett, but it’s short lived. They all overlap and interlink at the same time.
Malick’s trademark introspection is just as much in evidence as ever. His customary soft, internal monologues top and tail the film, this time courtesy of Mara, but feature other voices throughout. Similarities aside, what makes Song To Song a more satisfying watch than Knight of Cups, is that it’s grounded in a character who is more in touch with the real world, and that’s Gosling. He never quite belongs in the world of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, but goes along with it when it suits him. He brings a note of sincerity to the film, especially when pitched against his antithesis, Fassbender, an arch manipulator who uses sex as his weapon of choice with women. He picks them up, drops them again like a child with a new toy and is a total monster. At one point, he grotesquely jumps around on all fours like a monkey and you feel you’re actually seeing the real him.
But, despite the efforts of his stellar cast, Malick never allows us to get too close to his characters, using those monologues to keep the audience at a distance. And that’s the film’s biggest shortcoming. Constantly kept at arms’ length, we never really stand a chance of getting under the characters’ skins, so our sympathies are limited. Nonetheless, and despite that nagging feeling that Malick is stuck in a stylistic rut, this is a more engaging experience than its predecessor. But after Knight Of Cups, the only way was up.