Terrence Malick’s latest cycle of films are a continued interaction with Biblical wisdom literature and contemporary life. In The Tree of Life, Malick looks to Job and seeks solace in trying times. In To the Wonder, he hums along with Song of Songs and considers romantic ardor, it’s ebbs and flows, and the way this kind of love is mirrored in our devotion to God and vice versa. In Knight of Cups, his protagonist apes Ecclesiastes’ Qoheleth and looks for meaning in apparently meaningless life. Voyage of Time, like all of wisdom literature, centers this search for meaning in Creation, putting wisdom itself at the foundation of all things. Malick’s method in all of these films is the same – a kind of impressionistic hodgepodge of moments swirling around a few key characters all scored with found music and poetic, interrogative voice-over narration, presumably the inner monologues of the characters themselves.
And now, in Song to Song, Malick turns to Proverbs and follows a few characters as they search for wisdom itself and avoid and fall into various traps along the way. The form of his film here is the same as before. If you have been in-step with his previous four films, you’ll likely feel similarly about this one.
Looking to Proverbs for inspiration for a contemporary film may seem strange at first. Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes at least include obvious characters. Proverbs is absent of them. It is a book packed with pithy, wise sayings about how to best live a righteous life, right? That’s two-thirds correct, but that simplification of Proverbs obscures a few key facts about the book.
The beginning third of the book isn’t a collection of wise sayings. It’s a unbroken, if meandering, narrative on the importance of seeking wisdom and the hazards that threaten to waylay the seeker on his quest. The primary pitfall is sexual infidelity, though greed and selfish ambition are included as well. In this though, Proverbs’ regard for sexual fidelity isn’t a matter of right and wrong as much as it is a matter of smart and stupid. “Sleeping around causes problems,” it says, “and life is better without problems.” Proverbs doesn’t finger-wag. It observes. And it roots its observations in Creation itself and in the lived experience of humanity. “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,” Proverbs intones (3:19), so we can find wisdom in the world and not just in Scripture.
So Song to Song’s protagonist, Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician involved in Austin’s music scene, lives her live and reflects on the effects of her choices. As in Proverbs’ first nine chapters, the basic rhythm of her character through the narrative is one of experimentation and adjustment. She lives and learns and lives differently until she finds the wisest way to live. She tries on lifestyles like she switches wigs. She explicitly wants to experience all that life has to offer, but seeking life in un-wise ways leads to deathly things. “I thought we could roll and tumble,” she says, “to live from song to song.” In another sequence, the characters float in an airplane weightless (the film’s original title). No, experience teaches her, you have to base your life on more than your emotions if you want to experience true Life. You have to come back to earth. You have to live wisely.
Malick juxtaposes Faye’s quest for knowledge with that of other men and women in their small web of relationships. Most interestingly, Malick mixes Proverbs 1’s Sinful Man with Proverbs 5’s Adulterous Woman in the character Cook (Michael Fassbender), even having him literally drip honey into the mouth of one of his targets, a la Proverbs 5:3. Wisdom and Folly are personified in a few characters – I’d peg Patti Smith as Wisdom and Duane (Val Kilmer) as Folly, for sure, but there are others. The rest of the characters (those played by Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman, especially) serve to show the various effects of living a wise and unwise life. Gosling’s “BV” is predisposed to chasing fame. Portman’s “Rhonda” plays fast and loose with greed.
Sex binds them all together. (We even meet the parents of a few of them, since the parent/child relationship is also founded in sex.) As in Proverbs, sexual promiscuity leads to unhappiness, and Song to Song endorses that which leads to lasting happiness – sexual fidelity. Call it prudish if you want. Proverbs calls it wise.
As in all Malick’s films, his characters reorient their lives when they get back into touch with nature. One of the most enduring images from Song to Song for me is of BV lying in a freshly furrowed field finally free from his pursuit of fame. He is back in the bosom of Creation, in the arms of Wisdom herself. The film’s final images include Faye and BV on top of Enchanted Rock in the Texas Hill Country (a place I’ve camped), no sign of city for miles and miles, happily devoted to each other.
I am overwhelmingly grateful for this cycle of films. Seeing The Tree of Life for the first time was such a unique cinematic experience. Sure, Malick’s inspirations were evident—Tarkovsky, Resnais, Rossellini – but The Tree of Life still felt singular. Now, after seeing these other four films, a distinctive pattern and purpose emerge. Like the wisdom literature they emulate, they are films concerned with the very dynamics of life itself, and they look to make sense of life by appealing to the source of Life itself. Song to Song makes this cycle of films a complete work, as it deals with the last piece of wisdom literature in the Biblical canon Malick had left to tackle – Proverbs. It does so beautifully.
Reportedly, Malick is moving on from this kind of film to make a more conventionally scripted film and one set again in historical circumstance – Radegund, about Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector in WWII. Many will cheer this development as Malick’s latest films have proven too opaque for many. But first Malick finished this contemplative, restless, Transcendence-seeking, wisdom-sparked, experience-rooted quintet. These films should be especially lauded by Christians. These films are a gift.
You might also find these reviews of Song to Song helpful: