Terrence Malick is the world’s preeminent Benjamin Button filmmaker, his career defined by a few early masterpieces and a string of late-period efforts that play like increasingly unfocused versions of the earlier achievements. Mileage varies on whether that’s a bad thing, but it isn’t conjecture. His newer work reduces the elegant, layered storytelling of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” to simpler variations, as if they’re comprised of the beautiful residuals from those grander accomplishments.
There are reasons to delight in the autonomy of Malick’s poetic approach, particularly the way he treasures the lyricism of the natural world over narrative coherence, but that vision can only go so far. His cosmic IMAX documentary “The Voyage of Time” had a logical reason for throwing plot to the wind, but other recent efforts “Knight of Cups” and “To the Wonder” reduce the magisterial approach of “Tree of Life” to undercooked fragments. The latest example is “Song to Song,” an occasionally marvelous but redundant collage of moments from Austin’s music scene. There’s plenty of intrigue to the dissonance of a hard-rock lifestyle and Malick’s gentle touch, but much of the movie’s potential is overshadowed by the impulses of a director unwilling to get there.
Malick’s late-period efforts may be best characterized as a series of sonnets riffing on the same themes, from existential yearning to Christian philosophies and a generous dose of transcendentalism, all delivered in an incessant stream gorgeous visuals and ponderous voiceovers about the mysteries of life.
In “Song to Song,” the chief vessel of that mission is Faye (Rooney Mara, frozen in distant expressions), whose narration dominates a cyclical chronicle of her experiences at the center of a love triangle. The wayward guitarist in an unspecified band, she falls for fellow songwriter BV (Ryan Gosling, blond and lavishly wardrobed for the flamboyant B-side to his “La La Land” performance). However, Faye also maintains an affair with hard-partying music manager Cook (Michael Fassbender), who develops a bumpy romance with a local waitress (Natalie Portman, experimenting with southern twang). And that’s about all the “story” that Malick offers, though it would be unfair to presume it has much relevance to the director’s aims.
Per usual, faces speak louder than words, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s dynamic camera roaming through bright rooms and sunny open fields with restless energy as the whispery soundtrack shifts from one perspective to the next. The hipster quotient is high with this cast, but even though Malick’s work exists outside their generation, he’s ideally suited to revel in their aimless universe and its unruly creativity. At times, the specificity of the setting seems an inside joke: When Mara wears a South by Southwest badge while hanging out at Austin music venue Mohawk, the notion of “Malick doing SXSW” plays like the start of a self-parody that only diehard fans would appreciate.
With time, however, “Song to Song” blossoms into a natural fit for the director’s inclinations, peering beyond the rough exterior of the music scene to explore the psychology of people addicted to its extremes. His camera lurks on the edges of chaotic stages and in the confines of hectic crowds, with snapshots of Iggy Pop and a twerking Big Freedia, but he rarely turns up the volume.
Heavy with introspection but short on details, “Song to Song” is a paragon of Malick’s malleable approach to assembling his footage. At some point, Cate Blanchett surfaces to sketch out one character’s romantic history, but she’s more fleeting prop than character in this wandering poem of half-formed ideas. Christian Bale, who reportedly shot numerous scenes, doesn’t show up at all; judging by Malick lore, this has become a thespian badge of honor. Patti Smith appears for a number of clipped monologues, presumably as herself, dispensing wise thoughts about romance to the ever-baffled and mostly silent Faye.
At their best, these snippets create an engrossing ode to an angst-riddled young adulthood, careening from ecstasy to wistfulness and melancholic with a single cut. At worst, they’re rushed ellipses that suffer from redundancy over 130 minutes. Mara’s voiceovers are a pileup of vague references to the same ideas: “I was desperate to feel something real,” she mutters early on, adding moments later, “Nothing felt real,” and then, “Any experience is better than no experience.” That may very well be Malick’s mantra, as all of his post-“Tree of Life” narratives refuse to settle down in an unending quest for purpose. It’s a fascinating approach, by turns tiring and mysterious, to the point where even when it doesn’t work it remains an admirable reflection of a director allergic to compromise.
Still, it’s unfortunate that Malick, whose 45-minute cut for “Voyage of Time” was proof that he can still deliver a focused concept, seems to prefer the rockier approach. At the same time, that may be his best hope at continuing relevance. His recent spate of doodles have allowed him to pick up the pace over the past decade, cranking out disposable narratives that keep his talent active while it searches for an appropriate vessel. In “Song to Song,” his wayward characters eventually arrive at a new beginning that holds promise even though it contains elements of the same old routine. That’s the Malick paradox in a nutshell.
“Song to Song” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It opens theatrically on March 17.