If the meaning of life exists in the sweaty, jam-packed confines of a music festival, then Terrence Malick wants to find it. Partially filmed at Austin's SXSW, Song to Song features the filmmaker's trademark swirling imagery as he searches for substance among the crowds, takes us backstage with the likes of Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and serves up glimpses of several live performances. The writer-director's ninth feature roves through the city's music scene more generally, but its use of the fest couldn't sum up Malick's central question better. Amidst chaotic circumstances, how does one find beauty and love?
Through whispered words (another typical Malick flourish), various characters speak of ebbs and flows, of dream-like experiences, and of emotions that don't always feel quite right. In one of the voiceover's most overt moments, Rooney Mara's Faye discusses her relationship with Ryan Gosling's BV, explaining, "we thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss." Yes, she's saddled with clumsily making use of the movie's title, but she's also describing its quest to understand the ups and downs of human existence.
So it is that Faye falls for musician BV, with all the joy that romance can bring. Complicating matters, however, she also falls for her arrogant but well-connected producer boss Cook (Michael Fassbender), who starts working with BV. Cook also has an affair with a waitress, Rhonda (Natalie Portman), while BV becomes involved with Amanda (Cate Blanchett). As snippets of their lives fill the film, a number of other characters filter in and out – including Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), with whom Faye has a dalliance; BV's flirtatious mother Judy (Linda Emond); and Rhonda's mum Miranda (Holly Hunter), among others.
Accordingly, we watch as a bunch of rather attractive people live, love, fight, sing, play, dance and more. They go on holidays, attend parties, see gigs and roam around mansions — sometimes acting as though they belong, sometimes contemplating how lavish their surroundings and exploits are. Depicting their intermingling relationships is as much of a narrative as Malick is interested in providing. Instead, as he did with the thematically and visually similar To the Wonder and Knight of Cups (and The Tree of Life before that), he prefers to immerse audiences in his familiar style, encouraging them to get caught up in individual moments while pondering the bigger picture.
The end product is intoxicating and heartfelt, with Malick's desire to convey the complexity of being alive evident in every frame. That said, it also proves his most indulgent film, as he lets his directorial tics and traits run rampant. The movie couldn't look more gorgeous thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's floating, sun-dappled lensing, but it also couldn't lean more heavily on Malick's fondness for hushed voices and random shots of nature — motifs that will entrance some viewers and enrage others. His insistence on improvisation also results in inconsistent performances, with each actor shining at times while coming off stilted at others.
Perhaps it's best to think of Song to Song in the same way you would an actual song; a track on Malick's broader cinematic album. Within the tune itself, some parts engage and others lag, but there's always a clear melody making its presence known. Some viewers may prefer his older stuff, and that's fine. If you're on the film's wavelength though, plenty of its beats and rhythms will strike a chord.