Song to Song and My Frustration with Third Wave Terrence Malick

I kept thinking of a friend that I used to have. Brilliant, but grew increasingly and chronically unable to ever focus that talent into something that could be completed. Constantly half-finished, constantly not even starting. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as talent that seemingly goes unrealized.

That rememberance brings us to Terry Malick through what seems to hopefully be the apotheosis of his third wave of films. The trilogy comprised of To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song are all marked by an Emmanuel Lubzeki-led dreamy camera formlessness, a interchangable set of meditations on all manner of modern day topics in modern places, and a releases pace that is markedly faster for the legendary recluse. Two decades between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line has given way to these three feature length films in 5 years (as well as a fourth documentary feature released last year).

Far be it from me to speculate why his pace has so rapidly quickened, and far be it from me to draw connections between that and why this wave has felt so formless and meaningless (barring the fact that I earnestly do like To The Wonder). I especially cannot do so as I find Tree of Life his most potent work, and that’s the ur-text of all of the Third Wave trilogy. So, I’m going to take a bit of a journey here, and I hope you hold with me. I’m going to take the review to actually figure out what so bothers me about this set of Malick movies.

Song to Song is a much more close-to-home work for Malick, as it’s set in his hometown of Austin, Texas in and around the Austin music scene. Faye (Rooney Mara) is a struggling songwriter who falls in love with BV (Ryan Gosling), another struggling songwriter. Faye is also caught up in a bad romance with Cook (Michael Fassbender), a record exec/producer. Cook is also tangled up with a waitress named Rhonda (Portman), a small-town religious girl who Cook brings into a darker world.

Perhaps the first thing that strikes me about Song to Song is how ultimately bloodless the whole endeavor feels. There’s a certain excitement to Malick taking on the indie music scene, there’s a necessity of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into grinding through life as a young musician that could have been a much needed injection after the formless wandering of Knight of Cups.

But it’s just not there. Music feels the same as screenwriting feels the same as rural life. There’s no life, no vitality, Malick’s interest seems more in privilege than in the work. He’s caught up in grand spires, not plunking out the same notes over and over again to make it work.

We can’t slight an artist his interests, nor can we fully deny that’s the point here. Song to Song is a film about people who’ve lost their way. Filming every one of them in slow documentary drags of the camera, focusing on longing looks and wandering movements is just the text of the film.

But artistic intent must meet artistic execution and Song to Song never lets the two meet. His desire to show wandering is not met by a film that envelops you, that brings you on the emotional journey. Malick’s famous willingness to follow his muse slams up against an inability to bring the audience along with him. I’m not demanding to have my hand held, but I’m expecting the director to seem interested in what he’s trying to convey, not pulling so deeply into his own head.

Malick seems like with this and Knight of Cups, he’s throwing up a wall between us and the audience. It may be a deeply important experience to craft, but it feels as though it’s drained the life out of the film. It’s for him, not for us.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that during the frankly rampant sex in this movie. I did not come here to kinkshame Terry Malick (boy, if you thought that was a sentence you were ever gonna type, you’re wrong), but Song to Song‘s portrayal of sex (as in Knight of Cups) feels so singular to Malick and so similar to the problem he has with the music world.

Sex is repetitive in this film. A lot of tumbling and kissing tummies and that occasional thing where you kiss someone and hold their hands above their head and then once or twice there’s some sex that turns into more tumbling. There’s no heat or passion, it’s all flattened out into the same motions as everything else. Sex is music is screenwriting is rural life.

Maybe that’s what’s so bothered me about Third Wave Malick. There’s a sense of differentiation that’s been lost. It’s filmmaking interchangeable parts, it feels formless and capable of slotting into any other part of this work with no problem. He’s removed anything new in service of his style, he’s almost literally removed the substance in each movie. Cate Blanchett is in this and Knight of Cups and yet I would be hard pressed to tell you the difference in her performance between two different movies in two different places at two different times.

And what’s frustrating about all that is that Song to Song still has rewards. You aren’t as talented as Malick without still finding something worthwhile time to time. There’s a certain freedom, a reality that turns moments here and there into something beautiful. A scene of grieving by BV. The people of Austin, Texas finding freedom in music. Big Freedia shows up and holds a twerking contest and that’s just next level. Malick has an eye that’s unmatched, a way to pull beauty from the world that few others can.

But that keeps feeling lost in his wanderings, in his self-indulgence, in the bloodless ways he keeps portraying things that are full of life. Song to Song is the same as every other one of these movies, something Malick uses to ultimately say nothing. Malick talks a lot, but finds no substance in his Third Wave, and that’s frustrating. Because I know he can do better. I’ve seen it.

Let’s just see how Radegund goes.

Grade: C-