The good news for Terrence Malick enthusiasts is that his latest film is not by any means his worst or most impenetrable fantasia. How could it be when almost anything after To the Wonder and Knight of Cups should be considered a rebound? Song to Song, by contrast, has some vague semblance of thematic logic to accompany its many wide-angled, gorgeous composites of downtown Austin at sunset. Unfortunately, that logic does little to elevate the overall picture from still marking yet another pretty, but narratively cold and empty viewing experience.
Ostensibly set in the Austin music scene from Malick’s adopted hometown, by its very context Song to Song should pulsate with a rhythm and vitality every bit as eclectic as the culture it mines, but the film is about as authentically musical as it is romantic—which is to say not at all. Instead, here is another collection of highly talented movie stars forced to provide textured layers to characters as thin as the guitar strings they pluck, and as compelling as the smiling faces on a postcard.
The plot, as intelligible as it is, follows two sets of lovers and the messy entanglements their dalliances create for their lives. There is Faye (Rooney Mara), a would-be musician who’s paying the bills by house-sitting—or something like that, Malick surely doesn’t care and neither do we. But she is in the midst of a whirlwind romance with Ryan Gosling’s BV… at least this is what their omnipresent and interchanging voiceovers suggest. BV is also a musician who might be on the verge of a big break with a sleazy record producer named Cook (Michae Fassbender). Cook is likewise an ex-lover of Faye, and he is eying her again, even as he seduces and marries a sweet blonde Texan waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman) for little reason other than boredom.
More great thespians like Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, and Bérénice Marlohe make glorified cameos, but their intersecting lives prove as disinteresting as the those of the stars of the picture.
Plot and narrative have never been major aspirations for Malick, which is fine. When taking a visceral God’s eye view of human relations, such as in Tree of Life or The New World, his passion for pointillism characterization and storytelling can take on a deeply affecting, mythic quality. But in tackling something as messy and personal as a love story—which Mara, unluckily and in monotone, has to declare this film to be while Gosling tinkers with some piano keys—it’s just a single, two-hour long discordant note being hit ad nauseam.
The emphasis on casting big names works better in Song to Song than recent Malick pictures since all of these characters are in the music industry or are invited into its alluring waters. (Seriously, if nothing else, the movie is a breathtaking showcase of Austin mansions’ many fountains and pools.) Nevertheless, the considerable talent accumulated here is often squandered, with each performer reaching mightily toward their auteur writer-director’s creative pool to find some scrap of humanity to the proceedings. But for the most part, the result is akin to watching masterful demonstrations of thespians cry and guffaw on cue while in the spotlight of an undergraduate lecture hall.
Gosling and Mara’s protagonists are particularly frustrating since their relationship is demonstrated by what is essentially half-hour montage sequences. Voiceovers by the four central characters will key us into the apparent fire of their ardor—Fassbender’s Cooke laments to us, “They have something beautiful that makes me see my own ugliness”—but it’s muddied and intangible, as are their motivations. Other than the fact that they are both vain and selfish people, there is not a lot to hang the film’s hat on for these two beyond boredom.
Fassbender and Portman fare better since the former is basically playing an extroverted and less self-loathing version of his sex addict from Shame while the latter is the good Christian girl being consumed by his vices. And he gets to lay it on quite thick too—as in pouring literal thick honey down her throat in one sequence and proposing marriage to her in another while strings from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” play in the background. It ain’t subtle or particularly clever, but at least both get to engage in melodramatic beats that cracks through the filmmaker’s smothering pretensions.
Ultimately, however, Song to Song is a chilly, listless affair no matter how many different groups of artists are paired off to lock lips and longingly narrate their unspoken desires. For there is not a lot to be said here. The diverse range of music—ranging from Del Shannon’s “Runaway” to Die Antwoord’s “Fatty Boom Boom”—is a crutch to channel energy from a world Malick seems unconfident about translating.
No one in the film risks displaying a passing interest for their music, their lovers, or anything beyond their posturing before fishbowl lenses that would make for perfect compositions in a short film or 90-second trailer, but are grueling when endured at a 129 minutes that totally lack the lyricism intended. In actuality, Song to Song has all the poetry of a greeting card. A poorly conceived one at that.
Song to Song opens in select cities on Friday, March 17.