My relationship with Terrence Malick began in college, when as part of a freshman English assignment I had to watch Malick's debut film Badlands and prepare a presentation with a classmate. I knew Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek of course, but at the time I had never heard of Badlands or its director. To describe the experience of a first viewing from over 25 years ago feels like a reductive exercise, one that would just end up being sentimental. I do remember that I loved Badlands immediately, though at the time I responded more to the dryness of Martin Sheen's performance - which of course hides the characters sociopathy - than the contrast between Spacek's narration and the violence that her character observes. Spacek's voice over in Badlands is among the greatest in American film, both brilliantly acted and the perfect execution of Malick's intention, and it is equalled and maybe surpassed by the narration of Linda Manz in Malick's next film Days of Heaven. The Criterion edition of Days of Heaven has a sort of all hands on deck commentary track from Malick's collaborators, and the biggest revelation for me was the level of Malick's indecision over where to place certain cuts of Manz's voiceover. When an artist is as inscrutable as Malick we like to think that the work springs forth fully formed, but for Malick as with any other director it isn't always clear what one has until the editing room. Twenty years later Malick released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones's novel and a film arguably more famous for its production than for what ended up on screen. When I saw The Thin Red Line, which spreads the narration among a large cast, I knew instinctively that I was seeing a late career masterpiece but I now wish that I had bought another ticket and sat through the next show. (I later felt the same way about The New World and The Tree of Life.) The Thin Red Line seems to me a clear statement of Malick's great subject: Man is inextricably connected to the world around him while also being in opposition to that harmony. Later The New World would deepen and expand the argument, with the performance of Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas contrasting with the bearded, angry colonists to represent everything Malick wants to say about how far we are from the "state of grace" he describes in The Tree of Life.
After The Tree of Life Terrence Malick could have retired with an unimpeachable reputation as the Thoreau of American film, but he has continued to work and has produced a series of films set in contemporary America. I wrote something about To the Wonder here, and Knight of Cups seems to me the first film in which Malick fails to dramatize his ideas in a way worth watching. In these later films Malick relies almost entirely on voiceover, with the internal monologues of various characters playing over dialogue scenes that we hear very little of. The effect can be maddening when there seem to be external things at stake in the films (To the Wonder) or when as in Knight of Cups we simply don't have enough information to find our way into the film. Malick's most recent release is Song to Song, a 2017 drama largely shot and set within the music community of Austin, Texas. One of the first things we see in Song to Song is the crowd at a large outdoor concert - muddy, sweaty, colliding with each other and full of life. Malick returns to these images later on, and seems to use them as an substitute for the more familiar nature shots of earlier work. Our reaction to music puts us just a little bit further towards harmony with ourselves and the world. The central presence in Song to Song is an unhappy woman named Faye (Rooney Mara), who at various times is the lover of both a musician named BV (Ryan Gosling) and a wealthy, debauched producer called Cook (Michael Fassbender). Faye gets the bulk of the narration, and the strongest through-line of Song to Song is her journey towards both personal happiness and a larger sense of meaning in her life. Faye is a musician too, we see her on stage with Patti Smith (who appears in several scenes and serves as a sort of kind of guiding spirit for Faye) and Cook offers her a contract as an attempt to pry her from BV. There is actually quite a bit of plot in Song to Song, including Cook's marriage to Rhonda (Natalie Portman) and BV dating someone played by Cate Blanchett, but the film loses momentum whenever Malick goes away from Faye.
Rooney Mara might never have been challenged as an actor quite the way she is here, since Malick's choices to insert narration or music mean that everything in a shot might have to be conveyed through a look or a movement. Mara is up to the task, and as the film goes on the accumulation of moments create a moving portrait of a person lost within a storm of sensation. Faye is carried along by the choices and needs of those around her, but Malick's technique suggests how Faye could become worn down simply by the fact that it all never seems to stop. At one point I sensed that Song to Song was moving towards a conclusion, as Faye balanced her attraction to BV with the security offered by Cook. Then I realized that the film had only been going on for forty-five minutes. (It runs just over two hours.) Some time is devoted to BV's family situation, but Michael Fassbender as Cook gets the better of the deal. It's fascinating to think about whether or not Fassbender considered what sort of film Song to Song was likely to be, whether he knew that Malick would give as much weight to a shot of him jumping around like a monkey as to any of his dialogue scenes with Mara. Whatever the process, the result is a physically free performance the likes of which we really haven't seen from Fassbender before. Too bad then that the character of Cook functions more as a vehicle for Malick's ideas about manhood and art vs. commerce than as an actual person. The same can be said for Gosling's BV, who gets a half-baked subplot about a dying father. The relationship between Cook and Portman's Rhonda, a waitress whom he picks up in a diner, feels as though it could be its own film or was maybe carved out from another Malick idea. Portman is the worst served of the four leads, given very little screen time to express her self-loathing as she is sucked into Cook's lifestyle.
It would be a betrayal of Malick's worldview to resolve Faye's story neatly, but while trying at times Song to Song is the best application of his signature techniques to a film set in the present. There are too many films fighting for space here, but it's a relief to see Malick's need to find beauty and meaning in everyday life articulated still with such curiosity. To put it another way:
"I've been thinking what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor, checking out the Earth underneath." -Linda Manz, Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick is still checking out the Earth almost half a century after his first film, and we're lucky that the exploration continues.