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Song to Song is Terrence Malick’s most successful attempt to locate paradise in years

The film retreads Malick’s favorite questions, with fresh faces in the Austin music scene.

Rooney Mara in Song to Song
Rooney Mara in Song to Song
Broad Green
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Since at least 2011’s The Tree of Life — and really throughout his whole career — Terrence Malick’s overwhelming interest has been paradise. What is it? Where is it? How do we lose it? How can we find it again?

In his latest film, Song to Song, Malick returns to those same queries, this time in the Austin rock music scene. Meanwhile, his easily parodied stylistic hallmarks — swirling cameras, sunlit landscapes, fields of tall grasses waving in the wind, barefoot maidens tiptoeing in pools of water, beautiful actors, and, above all, whispery philosophical voiceovers — are pulling in diminishing returns, at times feeling obvious or even rote, rather than poetic and calculated. You might like that kind of thing, or you might have trouble watching because your eyes keep rolling.

But though Song to Song can get repetitive and directionless, it’s also dynamic and satisfying by its conclusion. Even when it feels like a pastiche of Malick’s other films, it shouldn’t be dismissed — and the filmmaker shouldn’t be dismissed, either. He is chasing hard after something metaphysical, and his camera still works in service of the great beauty and pain of that pursuit.

Song to Song’s narrative is familiar territory for Malick

Song to Song, like last year’s Knight of Cups, is about fame, desire, and the futility of chasing after the wind (to quote Ecclesiastes).

The film’s protagonist, a young musician named Faye (Rooney Mara), is caught in a love triangle between two impossibly sexy men: her open-hearted musician boyfriend (Ryan Gosling) and the more dangerous, alluring producer (Michael Fassbender) with whom she cheats. The two men become buddies, complicating matters further.

Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling in Song to Song
Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Ryan Gosling in Song to Song.

Song to Song is much more enjoyable than its recent Malick predecessors, largely because this core cast takes the director’s techniques and plays with them, to great effect. Otherworldly Mara is a Malick natural, but Gosling and Fassbender’s natural screen presences strain against the sometimes swoony style, to pleasing effect.

Song to Songs chronology isn’t linear, and deciphering the contours of the actual plot is tricky. At some point the music producer becomes infatuated with a waitress (Natalie Portman), and at a point when Faye and the musician separate, he takes up with one gorgeous woman (Cate Blanchett), while Faye takes up with another (Bérénice Marlohe). These side stories feel tacked on, and not particularly thoughtfully.

Yet the chronology of the story isn’t particularly important; this is a film meant to be felt more than followed. More important is Song to Song’s theme: the pleasures and downfalls of our insatiable drive for freedom. Faye is on a feverish hunt to find her own freedom, which leads her to try everything and indulge every whim, egged on by the producer. She wants to be free not just from limitations and obligations, but from her own fear of an authentic, but ordinary, existence.

Wisdom must find her (and does, most notably and unexpectedly in the form of rock legend Patti Smith), and wisdom must point her in the right direction of freedom. Characters’ parents appear throughout, suggesting the wisdom of age as well. In both whispered monologue and several musical choices, Song to Song suggests that Faye’s path to freedom lies in laying down her burden, and thus finding rest for her soul. She has to shed her self-illusions and pride before she can really be free.

Song to Song sketches its story onto a biblically inflected narrative arc

Malick draws on many philosophies and religious traditions in his work, but his overriding narrative architecture still points to the Bible. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden was paradise, and also the setting for the creation and fall myths: The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were created to tend to a perfect garden. In the center of that garden were two trees from which they were forbidden to eat: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life.

Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender in Song to Song
Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender in Song to Song.

But they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, moving from a state of innocence into something both more sophisticated and more painful, and were expelled from paradise before they could eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. The rest of the Bible's narrative, right through the book of Revelation, is the story of regaining paradise. (Spoiler alert: According to the Book of Revelation, paradise is eventually regained.)

This arc forms the pattern for Malick’s meandering stories. In Tree of Life it’s right in the title, and in the story, too: a child’s paradise, fall, and redemption nestled into the same narrative arc on a galactic scale. And in 2012’s To the Wonder, 2016’s Knight of Cups, and now Song to Song, Malick retreads that same ground, often using romantic relationships as the backdrop. (Even his IMAX spectacle Voyage of Time, which did some of the festival circuit last fall, is about the creation of the world, narrated directly to the audience, as if the meaning of each of our lives is bound up in the creation of the cosmos.)

Always, Malick sets up a contrast between nature and grace, between the base and the divine, the profane and the godly. And increasingly in his films, he mixes those all up. In Song to Song, the musician represents all that is good. On the other hand, the producer is something very close to a fallen angel, akin to Lucifer, driven awry by his pride and unfettered lusts — when Faye tells him he’s too proud, he says pride is a good thing.

Sex in Song to Song can lead down any path, to darkness and suffering or to love and freedom. “I took sex, a gift. I played with it. I played with the flame of life,” Faye says with sorrow. (The title seems an obvious echo of the biblical book of Song of Songs, which is love poetry that sings of both earthly and heavenly intimate ecstasy.)

Song to Song beckons the audience to see the way of grace in others

In each of his films, Malick invites the audience to join him on a search for paradise. And for him, it is deeply personal: These last three films (following the semi-autobiographical Tree of Life) seem to be intimate reflections on searching for the same thing, retreading a similar story arc. Each recounts an innocent state of paradise that breaks apart, in ways that are partly the protagonists’ fault, the result of desires gone awry and found to be empty. They must find their way by fixing their desires on something good, giving up more base pursuits.

It’s a journey that echoes the most famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Knight of Cups quoted a sermon of Augustine’s specifically: “Love and do what you like — a saint said that,” says one character.)

Rooney Mara in Song to Song
Rooney Mara in Song to Song.

That said, Malick doesn’t eschew the earthly. In these last three films, the protagonists’ better selves are found in earthly relationships that probably are meant to echo a more perfect divine one. We’re just human, after all.

In fact, Song to Song suggests, we see what is divine in the face of other people. Near the end of the film, Faye reads a passage from William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image”:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

So paradise in Song to Song is found not just in a simple life, but in the face of someone who loves us as more than just an object of desire — who loves us for the form of the divine image we represent.

This is the Garden of Eden, inscribed onto 21st-century Texas. Malick’s characters are on a continual journey back to the place they started from, the innocent paradise they once knew. But they’ve been on a journey to get there, and though it might sound almost transgressive to say it, they could only choose the way of grace once they’d come to experience the emptiness of the way of nature, and understood the need to be an instrument of peace (as in St. Francis’s prayer, quoted in the film).

Adam and Eve didn’t get to choose paradise — they were dropped into it at creation, and when they left, it was for good. But for Malick’s characters, who have seen the darkness, the light reflected in the face of another is all the more sweet.

Song to Song opens in theaters on March 17.