Terrence Malick has made more films in this decade than he did in the four that preceded it, and it would be all too easy to say that his speed after The Tree of Life hasn’t done him any good. To the extent the movie-going world noticed them at all, 2012’s To the Wonder and 2015’s Knight of Cups divided the cultists from the workaday cinephiles and revealed the dangers of Malick’s working method. But in their defense, accusations of self-parody overlook not only what those movies actually have to say, but the way Malick is still evolving. So while the usual suspects will say he’s repeating himself, I say he’s searching. All the modern-day pilgrims that dot his newfound productivity make me see him as something of a pilgrim himself: working on variations of a theme, looking for a new kind of “Terrence Malick film”.
So here are the numbers on his latest film Song to Song, a drama (read: two-hour montage) about love triangles in the Austin music scene. It’s currently playing in 4 theaters in the country (to disappointing box office receipts). The theater I saw it at—a mall multiplex, of all places—was about 20% full, mostly older couples. And at least three couples walked out. Yet Song to Song does represent a progression, if not necessarily an improvement, on the films before it. For one, and unlike Knight of Cups or To the Wonder, Song to Song feels like a story first and a spiritual allegory second. It’s heavier on plot, and it contains his most interesting characters since Tree of Life, particularly Rooney Mara. He’s finding better ways to shoot the modern world, including a few captivating guerrilla filmmaking sequences. The confessional voice-over is more emotionally raw and less strained towards poetic grandiosity. And the looseness of his structure, when paired with the subject of youth, picks up a certain energy, as if Malick’s improvisational style were getting closer to the riffs and twirls of the New Wave. As his free-spirited young heroes dance, fuck, split, and get drawn by necessity back to the old-fashioned values they lack, it struck me that depending on how you read his attitude towards aimless bohemians—and there’s a lot of wiggle room—Malick’s moral philosophy could be a good deal simpler than his cinematic dexterity. But there are too many beautiful shots to name, and some of them, like a climactic long take of Mara and Ryan Gosling driving, provide an emotional catharsis better than conventional drama ever could. Those who hate Malick will see more of the same: a self-important editing brew not worth decoding. As for Malickians, they’ll shine to it. A new Malick film is no longer a continent of its own but a miniature piece of a larger whole. Here’s hoping he finds what he’s searching for.