As filmmakers obsessed with his early work continue to ape his style, Terrence Malick has ventured beyond, reaching into territory that is stubbornly spiritual and anti-narrative. He eschews story conventions. He turns movie stars like Ben Affleck and Christian Bale into props, using them not for their acting but their broad shoulders that fill up the screen as ethereal women twirl around them. He has become his own genre and with experimental reveries like "To the Wonder" and "Knight of Cups," he has alienated some of his most ardent fans.
That modern trilogy concludes with "Song to Song ," taking the filmmaker and his stars Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender to his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. For those who wrote off Malick after "To the Wonder" or "Knight of Cups," it's unlikely that "Song to Song" will inspire a change of heart. But for the others, who've reservedly or unabashedly stayed with him, "Song to Song" is entirely worthy and even invigoratingly different from the previous two. There's actually a plot (kind of) and the actors are allowed to act and even have some life and (gasp) fun.
"Song to Song" is a love triangle of sorts, very much in the Malick mode, where one is pure (Mara and Gosling's struggling musicians), one is untenable (Cate Blanchett and Gosling), one is damned (Fassbender's sleazy, wealthy producer and Mara) and one is doomed (Natalie Portman's local waitress/teacher and Fassbender). There are others sprinkled in there too, mostly for the guys. As retrograde as it is, in Malick's worlds they're emboldened to sleep around in the name of searching. The women are always a different story.
If there is a main character it's Mara's Faye, who we're told is a musician although we never see her playing — only hanging out on the side of the stage, idly holding a guitar. She's a local girl ashamed of her "bad heart" who takes up with both Gosling's BV and Fassbender's Cook at the same time. The innocent BV remains ignorant to this, even as the three become close enough to vacation together. Faye flits between the two and the tension builds as we wonder when the charade of fidelity is going to lift.
Combined with Emmanuel Lubezki's sumptuous cinematography, these travel scenes are fairly riveting. At times I even forgot I was watching a Malick film, which has somehow become more of a compliment recently than a criticism. There are unexpected moments of joy, too, that don't involve fields or women twirling or cryptic voiceovers: BV dancing in the dusk to Del Shannon's "Runaway," BV and Cook weightless on a plane, Patti Smith giving sage advice, Val Kilmer taking a chain saw to an amp. Do they add up to anything? Maybe mood. Maybe nothing.
But it's wild and confident and unlike anything that his peers are making. There's even a youthful restlessness in his exploration of the impossibility of reconciling wealth and success with innocence and authenticity.
Gosling in particular is a refreshing presence. He lets his smarmy charisma shine through Malick's words, which many actors before him have taken too seriously and made leaden and lifeless. Gosling flirts and smirks while Fassbender festers with menace. Mara is enthralling if a little hard to grasp. Malick's women are usually more enigmas than characters — paragons of grace and goodness who must in turn experience deep shame when they stray, whether encouraged by a lover ("Days of Heaven") or in spite of one ("To the Wonder"). It's a one-sided and almost biblical morality that may have made sense in his period pieces, but is glaringly odd in these contemporary stories.
Still Malick's just doing his own thing. Everyone's still running to catch up with what he did in the '70s. He's already on another planet.
"Song to Song," a Broad Green Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language. Running time: 129 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr