Song to Song is a quintessential Terrence Malick movie: It’s a collection of ecstatic images designed to invoke the divine, to affirm the presence of God. Watching it, as usual, requires the patience of Job.
His latest test of endurance is set in the music business and follows young lovers (Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara) through a star-crossed love affair. Crossed in some cases with movie stars, including Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. In addition, rock icons (Patti Smith, Iggy Pop) appear in order to lend credibility to the music-industry setting. There’s a cameo by Val Kilmer that suggests what Doors frontman Jim Morrison might have looked like if he had survived (not good).
Song to Song opens on a playful note, and the affair between Gosling and Mara begins promisingly, before they encounter interference from an evil — if that's not redundant — music producer (Michael Fassbender), who represents a corrupt material world.
In fact, he appears to be the devil — not merely the embodiment of wickedness, but a creature who has consumed “all the poisons of the world” so that he might find some new and undiscovered form of sin. He finds it in the destruction of others. He seduces Gosling’s character with money and fame, Mara’s with lust, destroying the former’s love of music, the latter’s belief in the possibility of love.
All of this occurs in the context of Malick’s famous technique. There is very little dialogue; many of the characters don’t have names. Developments and themes are expressed directly to us in the form of whispery voiceovers, hinted at in glossy visuals.
For nonconverts, it’s the usual Malick mixed bag: some lovely images, some long stretches of opaque and self-indulgent content — posed figures doing nothing much, facing in opposite directions, as if to illustrate relationships at the point of inertia. A little of that goes a long way.
The director seems interested in more bold color than usual, and there are some carefully, beautifully composed frames. He also uses more handheld camera, works more often in close-up, and uses a lens that gives many shots a garish, fish-eye perspective. Coupled with his desire to lurch the camera from side to side, it makes for a movie that at times produces actual eyestrain.
The plot, as usual, is barely there. A prologue cements the idea that Gosling and Mara represent true love, that their breakup is a fall from grace. Gosling moves through a couple of desultory relationships (one with Blanchett), Mara the same (with Fassbender, and Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe).
Malick uses these events to preach some old-fashioned sermons — sex is a gift best experienced in the context of love; the wages of sin are death. This makes him, among directors who can attract top Hollywood talent, unique.
That’s the Malick paradox — an enraptured director determined to bring us closer to God, making movies that are infernally hard to watch. Fans will be undissuaded, nonfans unpersuaded. Malick himself, borrowing a line from one of the songs in the movie, might put it this way: “If you don’t like my peaches, don't shake my tree.”