Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, which comes to theaters tomorrow, might be compared to La La Land. Both films star Ryan Gosling as a musician trying to make it big. Both are about balancing love and career ambition, and the corrupting temptations of fame and fortune. Both are colorful, beautiful, and full of music.
But Malick’s film is not a crowd-pleaser. It provides not escapism, but a critique of the escapist fantasies that populate our mediated lives. It’s a jolting jeremiad masquerading as poetry.
If an abundance of beauty is pleasing in La La Land, in Song to Song it unsettles and provokes. Last year I described the experience of watching Malick’s Knight of Cups (which forms a sort of cinematic diptych with Song to Song) as “a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation… Fragments of pleasure, blips of meaning, a stream of consumables not unlike the disconnected feeds and curated media experiences of our iPhone lives.” The same could be said for Song—though here the image of the iPhone (or perhaps iTunes) is more literally invoked, with its title underscoring the point.
“I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” says Rooney Mara in the line which gives the film its title. Mara plays Faye, a restless hipster trying to make it in the Austin music scene. Like many in her generation, she is “desperate to feel,” open to anything (“I told myself any experience is better than no experience.”), and prefers brokenness to boredom (“I loved the pain. It felt like life.”). She experiences the pangs of transcendence in a secular age, desiring “to escape from every tie, every hold… to go up higher.” Her search for bird-like freedom (no surprise for Malick fans: birds are a major presence in the film) leads her to a meandering existence—not unlike an eclectic Spotify playlist—with nothing but mood and whim to guide her choices.
Faye falls for a kindred spirit in Ryan Gosling’s BV, a fellow wanderer and aspiring Austin artist who shares her freewheeling joie de vivre—and who, like her, fetishizes self-sabotage for the sake of art. As is the case in many of Malick’s films, however, their idyllic romance is disrupted when temptation enters the garden and innocence is lost. In this case, the tempter is a music manager named “Cook” (Michael Fassbender), who promises the world to both Faye and BV.
Fassbender’s character is essentially the devil (Malick told Fassbender to channel Satan from Paradise Lost). He’s a charismatic figure who says things like “I am king,” “Bow down,” “The world wants to be deceived,” and “People aren’t proud enough.” Indeed, Song is in part about the cycles of sin and the struggle of faithfulness in a world of temptation, which is a recurring theme in Malick’s oeuvre: “How do we get back to those other shores?” (The Thin Red Line); how can I “exchange this false life for a true one?” (The New World); why do “I do what I hate”? (The Tree of Life, channeling Romans 7).
For Faye and BV in Song, as well as another woman (Natalie Portman) who falls into Fassbender’s corrupting web of fantasy promises, the struggle with sin is real. The desire for change is frustrating: “I don’t know how to change,” says BV in the film. “I want to. How do you?” Faye, meanwhile, expresses her struggle in voiceover throughout the film: “I want to live a good life.” “I’m a beast.” “I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me.” “Come, save me from my bad heart.” “I rebelled against goodness.” Her journey is the central arc of the film, though Gosling and Portman are on similar tracks too.