With the release of Song to Song, it’s time to come up with a name for this creatively fertile, aggressively poetic period in the beloved auteur Terrence Malick’s career. Much like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, his new film is light on plot and heavy on portentous voice-over. The characters are thinly defined at best, but they’re also all the camera cares about, emphatically twirling around them as they dance, canoodle, and wrestle with all of life’s quandaries.
Perhaps you could call it Malick’s “contemporary architecture” period, since these films see their heroes trapped in postmodern buildings of glass, steel, and sumptuous infinity pools. Or maybe it could be titled his “freestyle dance” period, since all of his characters express their thoughts and feelings through movement, rather than dialogue. Whatever the name, Song to Song fits firmly into Malick’s non-narrative approach: A tale of musicians falling in and out of love against the backdrop of Austin’s music scene, it’s as confounding and oblique as his other recent efforts.
Though there’s certainly a hypnotic quality to Song to Song, this is a film that traffics in very broad story ideas and lets the viewer fill in the details. Like To the Wonder (about a marriage torn apart by infidelity and temptation) and Knight of Cups (about a depressed screenwriter fumbling his way through life in Los Angeles), Song to Song seems vaguely autobiographical. Malick grew up in Austin, Texas, and has faced the kind of artistic hurdles the movie’s characters seem to run into. But as with To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, there’s just not quite enough to grab onto here. And like those films, Song to Song seems destined to be remembered only by Malick’s most die-hard fans, who can pore over its semiotic details for years to come.