After his brilliant first films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), idiosyncratic writer/director Terrence Malick took a 20-year hiatus before returning to the screen with the rather good The Thin Red Line (1998).
His subsequent work has been spotty, however. While 2011’s The Tree of Life was mostly well-received, his recent efforts, 2013’s To the Wonder and 2016’s Knight of Cups, were savaged by critics.
The director’s latest seems unlikely to turn the tide. Indeed, Song to Song is an endurance test that practically feels like a Malick parody.
While the film is described in press materials as “a love story set against Austin’s rock-and-roll scene,” there’s little music to be found and a peculiar idea of what passes as love. Michael Fassbender stars as Cook, a wealthy and powerful music producer who holds sway over Faye (Rooney Mara), his receptionist-turned-lover, and BV (Ryan Gosling), a singer-songwriter who owes Cook everything for having helped him start his career.
When Faye and BV meet at one of Cook’s parties, they fall for each other and begin an affair. Unbeknownst to BV, Faye decides to hedge her bets — and secure a record contract — by continuing to see Cook as well.
Each man seems to be on the brink of finding out about the other’s involvement with Faye, but it doesn’t stop the three of them from going on a beautiful Mexican vacation where they can pose artfully, do monkey impersonations, pose some more, stare meaningfully out onto the horizon and pose again. They also almost constantly murmur breathy clichés in voiceover, including: “The birds said we’d love each other forever,” and “I took sex, a gift, and played with it. I played with the flame of life.”
Song To Song is so packed to the brim with such platitudes that there isn’t room left for conventional dialogue. Instead, Malick photographs his performers in as many stylized locations as possible, and it’s almost embarrassing to have to watch these otherwise fine actors playing with each other like simple-minded children or stroking each other’s faces and abdomens to indicate the unfathomable depths of their love. There are so many of these scenes in the film that it becomes risible, and the sex, while not graphic, still manages to be cringe-inducing.
The principals are not the only ones doing the swooning, either. Academy Award-winners Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett are brought in as second-string lovers for Fassbender and Gosling, and they also adapt the peculiar behavior of childlike play, silly voiceovers and extreme posing. Holly Hunter is equally wasted as Portman’s long-suffering mother, but at least she has some dialogue that she actually delivers to other characters.
Just to remind us that the film is purportedly about the music scene, Malick provides cameos by Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Flea. Occasionally Gosling and Mara can be glimpsed performing onstage, but even then the voiceovers return to obscure whatever music there is.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s Steadicam work beautifully captures Austin’s downtown and Hill Country, but it’s to no good end, as a sense of place is never really established. Everyone seems to be living in the same architecturally exquisite house in the woods with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spectacular waterfall pool just outside. Or they live in a fashionable condo downtown with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spectacular view of the Colorado River just outside.
In the end, Song to Song comes off as a vacuous monument to the director’s elliptical style — one that can’t help but collapse under the weight of its own pretentiousness.
Song to Song was reviewed at SXSW on March 10, 2017 (world premiere) at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX.