It’s marmite time at the multiplexes again this month as legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick returns to the silver screen with his latest opus Song to Song, which concludes the director’s latest phase of work. Starting with 2011’s The Tree of Life, this phase of Malick’s illustrious career has been described as either a work of an artist at the top of his game or pretentious nonsense that drifts off into its own little world leaving the viewer puzzled, perplexed or both. But stick with us, and indeed the film, because there are is a plethora of positives in this one.
Set amongst the music scene, Song to Song is as scattered and messy in its plot as his previous effort, Knight of Cups, but somehow the collected images and nuances make for a wonderfully absorbing whole. Such is its unrestrained nature that the story is hard to truly grasp but there is a driving narrative: up-and-coming musician Faye (Mara), young and impressionable, is looking for her big break in the business as is her other half BV (Gosling, as charming as ever). Enter Cook (a smarmy Fassbender), a big-shot music producer whose success presents an intriguing opportunity for Faye to become a star, but she soon finds herself professionally and personally enamoured with Cook, who himself has eyes for a local waitress (Portman).
As aforementioned, Song to Song follows a similar pattern: playing around with the narrative, this is a swirling vortex of images and sounds rather than a straightforward story, ducking and weaving through a series of moments that unfold like an abstract painting – undoubtedly, each viewer will take away something different to that of the next such is the myriad themes and subjects flowing through the film. But persist and the rewards are all there, and while some moments don’t quite work (Natalie Portman’s sub-pl0t doesn’t engage quite as it should), this inventive, mesmerising cinema that is unlike anything else on screens right now.
There’s a dreamlike quality to Malick’s recent films and this one is no different: the camera almost intrusively present in the faces of those inhabiting the frame, moving fluidly through the action as we lurk closely to the unfolding drama before us. Images are crisp and intoxicating, whether in the back areas of a concert, the panoramic vistas of the Mexican beaches or the rural surroundings of a small US town, it’s a colourful whirlwind that ensconces the story that brings together profound moments from its opening frame to the last.
Indeed, the looseness and improvisational style to Malick’s is an actor’s dream, where they get to immerse themselves fully into the character and delve deep into their emotional and physical responses. Both Gosling and Fassbender deliver nuanced, electric performances that are amongst their finest works, but this is Mara’s film. Once again the actress, with so many superb turns already under her belt, delivers in spades with a subtle yet mesmerising performance and such is her run of form over the last few years (a dud or two aside) that it’s becoming impossible to pick her best but this is amongst her finest moments thus far.
For many, this will be just another blight on Malick’s legendary career but for those who see something both alluring and compelling about his 21st century output, Song to Song has so much to offer: a romantic, poetic and beautiful portrait of obsession, love, dreams, and music, it’s one of the year’s very best that demands your attention.