“Song to Song” in many ways feels like a companion film to “Knight of Cups”. Filmed at the same time, it covers much of the same ground – spiritual malaise, self-destructive ennui, the emptiness at the heart of show business and those inhabiting it, mining Malick’s own life autobiographically, and of course the technical side – hypnotic steadicam shots, meditative voiceovers, memory-style montage editing, shooting in the magic hour, gorgeous and inquisitive shots of nature, and so on.
But where “Knight of Cups” had tremendous cohesion in fully embodying its continual yearning for meaning among endless memories and new experiences, “Song to Song” saddles itself to plot and character more than Malick’s other recent works, and his dreamy modern style sometimes clashes with that approach. Where “Knight of Cups” looked at promiscuity and degeneracy of modern show business with its male protagonist and perspective, “Song to Song” does with Rooney Mara’s protagonist.
Backing down on the intensely creative montage style of “Knight of Cups” and returning to more traditional characterisation works in indeed giving the film identifiable characters instead of just ciphers (Ryan Gosling does particularly good work on that front), but it’s never so much as his earlier work so doesn’t hit the emotional highs grounded in character his earlier films did, and neither embodies its own tone and concept so strongly to wash over as a singular, concentrated experience. It feels more grounded, but soaring above the ground was what was interesting about his last few films.
Still, it’s impeccably made, and an exploration of the emptiness of sex and success without love it works very well. Austin’s music scene becomes a kind of Sodom, and an unnamed western state Eden. Where “Knight of Cups” examined cycles and repetition, “Song to Song” shows the triumph of actual progression, change, song TO song in this way, when the characters move from one to another. It’s not as commanding as “Knight of Cups” or as inspired as “To the Wonder”, but it completes the semi-autobiographical, increasingly-dreamy trilogy of follow-ups to “The Tree of Life” nicely. Four guitars, and a strobe glove.