A Prayer to Ryan Gosling
A review of Song to Song
Very little has been made of Terrence Malick’s most recent film, Song to Song. Malick’s style has changed dramatically over the years, becoming less plot-driven, more poetic, and stranger at every turn. The director, once hallowed for films such as The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, seems to have become a favorite punchline among film critics. The reviewers of Song to Song continued this tradition — James Verniere of the Boston Herald, for example, referred to the film, which stars Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Rooney Mara, as “another empty, heavily voice-overed perfume commercial.” As Christopher Hooton of The Independent pointed out, it has become fashionable for critics to pan Malick’s films. They seem to take joy in it the way late night comedians enjoy parodying politicians.
Many of the reviews note that this film (or the previous, or the one before that) will appeal only to Malick’s most die-hard fans. They may be right — I don’t think Song to Song could ever be a box office success — but this sentiment seems to suggest that only the disinterested critic can be objective — that a Malick fan is something like a mother admiring her child’s other-worldly scribblings. In this respect, he enjoys the company of Kafka, Van Gogh, and others.
“The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”
— overheard in a DC bar (quoted in “The Big Short”)
While Terrence Malick’s early works have a strong narrative, “prose-like” style, recently he has become much more poetic. Voice-overs, long silences, and disconnected flashbacks abound. In addition to his challenging style, Malick uses his films to explore questions many of us would rather not face. So it should come as no surprise that his work is considered inaccessible. No one expects books of poetry to sell at the rate of novels. This doesn’t mean a Malick film will necessarily be good — only that its poetic style does not render it prima facie bad.
[The following paragraphs contain a couple of minor “spoilers.” It should be noted, however, that Malick’s poetic films are not spoilable in the way a standard plot-driven film would be.]
Song to Song focuses on relationships set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene Here I will focus on a couple of those relationships. In the first piece of voice-over, Faye, a young Austin musician played by Rooney Mara, tells the audience “I used to think that sex had to be violent… I was desperate to feel something real.” We see moments in her relationship with a music producer played by Michael Fassbender, who is obsessed with what he thinks of as freedom. “He wants to be free,” Faye narrates, “he doesn’t know how.” Their relationship appears to be one of mutual use — her for her body, him for his musical connections. The violence she alluded to at the beginning is evident. Fassbender’s version of freedom requires that he control everything and everyone.
Faye meets and begins to date another musician, played by Ryan Gosling. He asks her if she has a boyfriend, but then says to “just tell me a complete lie. You can say anything you want to me — that’s the fun about me.” He is playful and carefree, a stark contrast to the domineering producer. As the two men in her life begin to create music together, Faye finds herself stuck in the lie she told, in the destructive power-based affair with Fassbender’s character, and in love with Gosling’s. When she eventually admits to sleeping with the music producer, her relationship with Gosling’s character ends.
At numerous points early in the film, Mara and Gosling’s characters watch in awe as birds swarm and fly. Malick has used birds in this way before, but in Song to Song they are almost a character. Seeing them, Faye finds herself drawn back “to the wonder,” to where her love began. Here, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked on all of Malick’s recent films, and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Tree of Life, is on full display. In these moments, the viewer feels transported up with the birds — in others, the camera tilts, shakes, and spins, giving to the viewer a visceral sense of the discord felt by the characters.
In an early scene, Mara and Gosling walk in circles around each other as the opening bars of Zbigniew Preisner’s “From the Abyss” are heard. Later in the film, these notes reappear as a “musical leitmotif,” drawing the viewer back with Faye to the moments she cannot make herself forget — to the beach, the birds, the freedom Ryan Gosling’s character embodies. In an early voiceover, Fassbender’s character had said that “they have a beauty that makes me ugly.” He seeks freedom through power, Faye through “free love” and violent sex. Neither suffices.
The sense of longing evoked by the music is evident in her face. “I can’t bear to see the birds,” she says as the music plays, “because I saw them with you.” “I used to think that sex had to be violent” she had said at the beginning of the film. “I love the pain — it feels like life.” But it is only in the relationship with Gosling’s character that Faye actually feels alive. Everything else leaves her empty and bored.
“I never knew I had a soul — the word embarrassed me.”
In Malick’s films, voiceovers are frequently addressed towards someone, a “you.” It can be hard to tell who that “you” is, and this is not an accident. Faye’s voiceovers become increasingly prayer-like as the film progresses, as she becomes more aware that nothing she does seems to fully respond to the desire she feels. When she whispers “I’ll die if you don’t come soon,” it’s not just Ryan Gosling’s character that she is praying to. There’s something else.
“I’m inside your DNA — you can’t make me go away.”
Towards the end of the film, a metal band called Plasmatics screams these words over and over during an outdoor concert in Austin. They echo in the audience’s ears as we see a series of shots — visually disconnected, but tied together by the screaming — of one character after another grappling with, pushing away, ignoring, or chasing after that something inside their DNA.
With Song to Song, Terrence Malick avoids the traps of sentimentalism on the one hand, and moralism on the other while telling a deeply human story — one filled with deception, confusion, beauty, longing, goodness, and truth — and therefore a deeply religious one. Its poetic style makes it challenging to audiences, and leaves it open to the ridicule of critics. But, like a poem, it continues to resurface in unexpected ways in the memory of the viewer, long after the credits roll.