Terrence Malick's new movie — starring Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and Ryan Gosling — shows why he's so in demand.
Terrence Malick is more famous for his reclusiveness than for his movies. Between the release of "Days of Heaven" in 1978 and the premiere of "Song to Song" at SXSW last week, he didn't grant a single public interview. Photos of him were nearly as rare. Even TMZ didn't know what they had on their hands when they accidentally got footage of him in 2012. He is the cinematic version of J.D. Salinger.
But despite that — or maybe because — he's so mysterious, Malick attracts the best actors in the business. His newest movie, "Song to Song," has yet another stacked cast. It stars Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman. His previous fiction film, "Knight of Cups," had Christian Bale, Blanchett, and Portman. "To the Wonder" starred Ben Affleck, and "The Tree of Life" starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and introduced the world to Jessica Chastain.
For the most part, these actors are in high demand in the movie industry. They're selective with their roles, and could be making millions of dollars by starring in blockbusters, or chasing after an Oscar by being in a biopic instead of an enigmatic two-hour tone poem.
But watch any of Terrence Malick's movies, and it's clear why any actor would want to work with him. Sure, his films are easy to mock. They barely have a plot. The camera (three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a frequent collaborator) roams around instead of staying still. Actors speak in voiceover more than they do in dialogue. His movies frequently have shots of hands gently flowing through fields of wheat or people kneeling and pressing their faces into someone else's navel.
On the other hand, the expressionistic style of the film allows for actors to open up. Each character is still distinct, but the lack of constant dialogue means that the actors have to find new ways to communicate who their characters are to the audience. It's a challenge that actors at the top of their game would relish.
Michael Fassbender in "Song to Song" is the best example of this style. It's some of the best work he's ever done. He plays an egoistical music producer who seduces and betrays the women who depend on him. Like all of Malick's characters, he speaks mostly in half-sentences, so he largely conveys his character with his constantly moving physical presence. He rolls around, hoists Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman into the air, and gets into friendly fisticuffs with Ryan Gosling. If Malick's camera is always dancing, then Fassbender dances right back.
Rooney Mara, too, gives one of her widest-ranging performances. She normally plays women who are tightly wound, like Catherine in "Her" and Therese in "Carol." In "Song to Song," she's a young rock musician trying to get a big break, who tenderly falls in and out of love with Ryan Gosling's character. Gosling himself gets a chance to communicate with music rather than just words, playing the guitar. It's the latest in a string of movies where he's an instrument-playing romantic, along with " target="_blank"La La Land" and " target="_blank"Blue Valentine."
"Song to Song" is also more musical than Malick's other films. He usually uses classical composers for the score — and he still does here — but it's set in the Austin rock scene, and he shot the movie in Austin, where he lives. He also gives a few rock stars — like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop — cameos, and the chance to give plausibility to the movie's world.
It's also a companion piece to "Knight of Cups." In that movie, Christian Bale played a highly successful but emotionally empty screenwriter who feeds on Hollywood's decadence and goes through a string of women to satisfy him. The movie focused mostly on Bale's character, leaving the hurt women in his life in the periphery as Bale sought redemption.
In "Song to Song," Fassbender plays a similarly successful and empty music producer. But instead of focusing on him too much, Malick instead pays attention to the women around him, who sacrifice their time and lives for his happiness, only to have their own upended and left in the emotional wreck of his recklessness.
There are some risks to working with Terrence Malick. One of his filming methods is to shoot reams and reams of footage — he shot one million feet of film for his 1998 film "The Thin Red Line" — and whittle it down into a two-hour story in post-production. This means that roles are inevitably cut down in the final cut. Adrien Brody, for example, was supposed to be the main character in "The Thin Red Line," and spent six months shooting the film, but his role was cut down to just a couple of lines of dialogue. Val Kilmer was supposed to have a big scene as a rock star who goes berserk during a performance in "Song to Song," but his scene was only a couple of minutes long, and most of the footage was of the back of his head.
It can be tough on actors. Brody called the experience "unpleasant" after he had already begun doing press for the film. Mickey Rourke, who was excised completely from "The Thin Red Line," lashed out and said he was cut for "political reasons."
Malick seems to be getting more sensitive to the criticism. He's been more careful, and the actors who work with him seldom seem to mind. Rachel Weisz, who filmed scenes for 2013's "To the Wonder" but wasn't in the final cut, was indifferent. "One never knows with Terrence Malick," she told The San Francisco Chronicle. "You can shoot for three months and end up not being in the movie."
For actors like her, the chance to work with Terrence Malick is worth it. Even if they don't appear in the final film too much, they'll have the chance to work on their craft in a new way. And if they only get a few fleeting minutes, it's a few fleeting minutes in a movie that could be watched generations from now.
It's not as good as "The Tree of Life" or "The Thin Red Line" — Malick's two best works — but "Song to Song" is by far the best of his last three movies, and is beautiful enough to watch that it should be seen on the big screen if it's playing in a theater in your city.