Who knows if Terrence Malick will ever reach his early career heights again. The Tree of Life might be his final “great” work, though his recent efforts may be re-evaluated down the line. Song to Song, like its past few predecessors, was tepidly received and ignored by most audiences, left to be picked up by its few supporters for the year-end list haul. It was fortunate that I didn’t give it a pass, because to my surprise, it was a largely beautiful experience. Utilizing a more experimental approach than is his norm, Malick brings us a fluid panorama of a fragile quartet longing for completion. They turn to each other for love, turn away in betrayal, and slowly circle back after a series of small interludes. The backdrop here is the music industry, and from time to time Malick lines up a number of cameos from the likes of Patti Smith, Lykke Li and Iggy Pop to give his tableau a sense of authenticity. But he doesn’t make it an overbearing component of the film, letting it sit just outside the frame for most of the runtime. I appreciated that.
This really needs two or more viewings for every element to crystallize (most Malick films do); out of this first outing, what I thought most interesting was how every character save Fassbender’s had an important parental bond that ended up exposing a certain vulnerability in their natures. And each bond led to different revelations and decisions, which I felt very true to life. Our essence is usually cultivated by the relationship we have with our parents, isn’t it? I’d like to think Fassbender isn’t given a parental bond here because, if one sees him as the Devil incarnate, his daddy his up in the air, as it were. But that’s just my early interpretation of events.
A better-than-expected Malick may not be as good as transcendent Malick. I will take it at any rate. I’m also somewhat relieved that the master still has a lot of vision left in him, so may he bring on Radegund and let the haters give it a rest for once.