director: Terrence Malick
First impressions: David Hudson @ Fandor
“You get used to drifting. Waiting.”
Does it matter whether it’s Rooney Mara’s Faye, Ryan Gosling’s BV, Michael Fassbender’s Cook, Natalie Portman’s Rhonda or Cate Blanchett’s Amanda who half-whispers these words under another careening, ultrawide-angled framing of all these beautiful people wondering what to do with themselves? And yet, just as Terrence Malick’s Song to Song threatens to settle into the abiding pace of a feature-length montage sequence, there’ll be a sudden and unexpectedly captivating swerve into an alternate texture—tube-era video or a clip from a silent classic. Or a relatively significant character turns up dead. The mystery lingers a minute or two, then evaporates.
For all the peripheral threads, some eventually tied up while others dangle still, the narrative backbone is discernible enough, even if the particulars are sketchy. Fassbender’s music producer, manager and concert promoter—he must invest well, as he’s ridiculously wealthy, considering the state of the business—and Gosling’s songwriter and performer (we get to see him tickle the ivories again) both fall for Mara’s singer, songwriter and guitarist (though her instrument seems to confuse her). It’s evidently quite easy to do; simply press your brow against her midriff. Done. The power of love in Song to Song, though, is strangely inarticulate. Over and again, one of the two pairings has been placed in a photogenic environment and, it seems, told to flirt. The business these fine actors come up with is oddly childish—little dances, making faces, poking a stalk of grass up Mara’s nostril and just generally goofing around, all the while avoiding eye contact and all but telegraphing a sense of helplessness, a lack of direction.
Patti Smith, emerging from the ambient aimlessness as herself, is a welcome relief for each and every one of her too few moments. She has stories to tell, acute observations to make, advice to give. She is, as opposed to the leads, a fully formed character. Which isn’t to say that distinctions aren’t drawn between Fassbender’s crooked hedonist and Gosling’s jealous man of simple means.
As the opening film of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the premiere of Song to Song was a hot ticket, the draw being not only the director and the cast (alongside the headliners, there’s Holly Hunter, for example, glimpsed emoting but too seldom heard, Val Kilmer being an ass and cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop and John Lydon) but also Austin, playing itself and cast against type. The “Keep Austin Weird” side of the city that serves as a backdrop in, say, Andrew Bujalski‘s Beeswax (2009) has walk-ons in the form of a mural Mara and Gosling are momentarily placed in front of or the South Congress food truck lot Mara and her brief fling (Bérénice Marlohe) stroll through like tourists, but the state capital with money, and lots of it, that features in Bujalski’s Results (2015) is paraded in Song to Song somehow as both symptom and a point of civic pride.‘Song to Song’ Review: Terrence Malick’s Take on the Austin Music Scene Is Very Malick, And Not Much MoreEric Kohn @ IndieWire
Terrence Malick is the world’s preeminent Benjamin Button filmmaker, his career defined by a few early masterpieces and a string of late-period efforts that play like increasingly unfocused versions of the earlier achievements. Mileage varies on whether that’s a bad thing, but it isn’t conjecture. His newer work reduces the elegant, layered storytelling of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” to simpler variations, as if they’re comprised of the beautiful residuals from those grander accomplishments.
There are reasons to delight in the autonomy of Malick’s poetic approach, particularly the way he treasures the lyricism of the natural world over narrative coherence, but that vision can only go so far. His cosmic IMAX documentary “The Voyage of Time” had a logical reason for throwing plot to the wind, but other recent efforts “Knight of Cups” and “To the Wonder” reduce the magisterial approach of “Tree of Life” to undercooked fragments. The latest example is “Song to Song,” an occasionally marvelous but redundant collage of moments from Austin’s music scene. There’s plenty of intrigue to the dissonance of a hard-rock lifestyle and Malick’s gentle touch, but much of the movie’s potential is overshadowed by the impulses of a director unwilling to get there.
Malick’s late-period efforts may be best characterized as a series of sonnets riffing on the same themes, from existential yearning to Christian philosophies and a generous dose of transcendentalism, all delivered in an incessant stream gorgeous visuals and ponderous voiceovers about the mysteries of life.
In “Song to Song,” the chief vessel of that mission is Faye (Rooney Mara, frozen in distant expressions), whose narration dominates a cyclical chronicle of her experiences at the center of a love triangle. The wayward guitarist in an unspecified band, she falls for fellow songwriter BV (Ryan Gosling, blond and lavishly wardrobed for the flamboyant B-side to his “La La Land” performance). However, Faye also maintains an affair with hard-partying music manager Cook (Michael Fassbender), who develops a bumpy romance with a local waitress (Natalie Portman, experimenting with southern twang). And that’s about all the “story” that Malick offers, though it would be unfair to presume it has much relevance to the director’s aims.
See More‘Song to Song’: All the Fan-Captured Videos of Terrence Malick Shooting His Austin-Set Romance — Watch
Per usual, faces speak louder than words, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s dynamic camera roaming through bright rooms and sunny open fields with restless energy as the whispery soundtrack shifts from one perspective to the next. The hipster quotient is high with this cast, but even though Malick’s work exists outside their generation, he’s ideally suited to revel in their aimless universe and its unruly creativity. At times, the specificity of the setting seems an inside joke: When Mara wears a South by Southwest badge while hanging out at Austin music venue Mohawk, the notion of “Malick doing SXSW” plays like the start of a self-parody that only diehard fans would appreciate.
With time, however, “Song to Song” blossoms into a natural fit for the director’s inclinations, peering beyond the rough exterior of the music scene to explore the psychology of people addicted to its extremes. His camera lurks on the edges of chaotic stages and in the confines of hectic crowds, with snapshots of Iggy Pop and a twerking Big Freedia, but he rarely turns up the volume.
Heavy with introspection but short on details, “Song to Song” is a paragon of Malick’s malleable approach to assembling his footage. At some point, Cate Blanchett surfaces to sketch out one character’s romantic history, but she’s more fleeting prop than character in this wandering poem of half-formed ideas. Christian Bale, who reportedly shot numerous scenes, doesn’t show up at all; judging by Malick lore, this has become a thespian badge of honor. Patti Smith appears for a number of clipped monologues, presumably as herself, dispensing wise thoughts about romance to the ever-baffled and mostly silent Faye.
At their best, these snippets create an engrossing ode to an angst-riddled young adulthood, careening from ecstasy to wistfulness and melancholic with a single cut. At worst, they’re rushed ellipses that suffer from redundancy over 130 minutes. Mara’s voiceovers are a pileup of vague references to the same ideas: “I was desperate to feel something real,” she mutters early on, adding moments later, “Nothing felt real,” and then, “Any experience is better than no experience.” That may very well be Malick’s mantra, as all of his post-“Tree of Life” narratives refuse to settle down in an unending quest for purpose. It’s a fascinating approach, by turns tiring and mysterious, to the point where even when it doesn’t work it remains an admirable reflection of a director allergic to compromise.
Still, it’s unfortunate that Malick, whose 45-minute cut for “Voyage of Time” was proof that he can still deliver a focused concept, seems to prefer the rockier approach. At the same time, that may be his best hope at continuing relevance. His recent spate of doodles have allowed him to pick up the pace over the past decade, cranking out disposable narratives that keep his talent active while it searches for an appropriate vessel. In “Song to Song,” his wayward characters eventually arrive at a new beginning that holds promise even though it contains elements of the same old routine. That’s the Malick paradox in a nutshell.