‘Song to Song’
Director:
Terrence Malick
Stars: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Reports of Terrence Malick’s irrelevance have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a tragic irony that the moment the filmmaker went from reclusive to unexpectedly prolific, critics would turn on him and audiences would forget he exists. It’s certainly easy to snicker at his recent films, like “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” — at the whispered poetic narration, at the name actors twirling or running or posing for the camera like models, at the fact that they’re so goshdarned earnest. But the films are deceptively simple, in their busy ways. And this old Texan “has-been” has a finger on the pulse of our times like no other.

Malick’s latest whirligig contraption is a love story, a tale of a break-up and reconnection between Rooney Mara’s Faye and Ryan Gosling’s so-named “BV.” But you might not realize that till it’s almost over. As usual in Third Wave Malick, “Song to Song” jumps around so much you never know where you are, or even what the plot is. But if Malick’s a bad storyteller, he’s bad for an excellent reason. We watch as aspiring Austin musicians Faye and BV are torn apart by a third wheel, Michael Fassbender’s hedonistic record producer Cook. Malick even finds time for Cook to pick up and debase a schoolteacher/waitress, played by Natalie Portman, with his yen for drugs, drink and threesomes. (Much was made about Malick shooting during SXSW, but the film’s one huge demerit is it’s not much of an Austin movie. Only one taco truck makes the final cut.)

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This all may seem like the same old Malick song. (He even throws in a guitar-strumming Patti Smith saying, “I can go on for hours with one chord,” as if to bait his haters.) But what he’s been doing with his last three films is akin to a painter or a composer working on the same basic theme with minor variations. Malick may be an old dog, but his hyper-cutting style is perfect for an age of constant Internet surfing — for the dopamine rush that comes with faves and hearts and clicks. His films move fast because they’re capturing characters who constantly feel unmoored, who seek moments of transcendence that always prove fleeting. What drives the characters is also what ultimately makes them feel hollow.

But Malick’s films themselves are not hollow. They teem with life. Every shot is a new sensation, and they move from our eyes as quickly as they appeared. Taken in total, as two-hour-plus flurries of activity, they present lives that lack balance or stability. The characters can never be happy because they are addicted to the rush of life at its craziest: the wild concerts, the swank skyscraper pads that loom over the city, the stolen moments of love or simply lust. “Knight of Cups” used the current Malick style to dig into the way modern life is rubbish, while “Song to Song” applies it to the transitory nature of love.

There’s something latently conservative about Malick’s worldview — that happiness only comes with settling down, preferably with kids. (There’s an obsession with people kneeling down and kissing Mara’s belly, as though they couldn’t wait to put a baby in there.) But he’s as addicted to the fast-paced life as his characters. His films capture the feeling of never feeling at ease with the world or themselves, always feeling lost in a world that’s never permanent. “Song to Song” ends on an up note, but don’t be deceived: Maybe that, too, is an improbable fantasy of peace that will fall apart like the last one.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge