I love Terrence Malick, his movies are the perfect mixture of weird, etherial, poetic, unique, beautiful, poignant and effective that no other filmmaker of this era has been able to emulate even slightly successfully. I wholeheartedly believe that “The Thin Red Line” is one of the greatest films about war ever made, as well as “The New World” being one of the finest historical epics of its time. If Malick can do something, it’s make a true epic and while it’s not the archetypical epic like classic film would portray, his ability to make the mundane monumental is one of the most mesmerizing things to see. That being said, before “Song to Song” was the first Malick I was able to see in theaters, as I missed “Knight of Cups” when it hit theaters last year. Going into “Song to Song,” I was excited about the way a Malick film would transfer to the big screen and the effect it would hold over me.
Too bad “Song to Song” feels more like a parody of Malick than an actual film by Malick.
Typically, this is the part of the review where I would explain the plot of the film, which I will do shortly. Yet, I find it worth noting that “Song to Song” doesn’t actually have all that much of a plot in general, and the description that the studio provides is far more clear and descriptive than the actual film is. Take what I say with a grain of salt.
Faye (Rooney Mara) is an aspiring musician living in Austin, TX, a hub for the indie music scene and hipster capital of the South. Faye is a receptionist for Cook (Michael Fassbender), a troubled, yet successful music executive that could place her on the right career track. Faye also is embroiled in a sexual relationship with Cook as well. Faye catches the eye of BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician, whom Cook takes under his wing. Their relationship begins as Faye continues her secret sexual relationship with Cook, unbeknownst to BV and others. Meanwhile, Cook begins a relationship with a down-on-her-luck waitress, Rhonda (Natalie Portman).
Does “Song to Song” sound spastic and erratic? Because I can assure you, it’s even worse in the final product. Typically, Malick’s vision that others would consider unique and weird at times always carry a heavy, poignant symbolism that carries itself throughout the entire film, but int he case of “Song to Song,” it really feels like Malick is reaching for strings of his trademark that simply don’t exist, as if there’s some sort of obligation to “out-Malick” himself with each film he makes, meanwhile the plots of each resulting film become less and less Malick-like. I have no doubt that “Song to Song” would work as a straightforward film about the Austin music scene, but the way in which Malick frames each scene, with an incessant need for breathy narration for almost every instance of dialogue that the film offers. These things could work if Malick knew how to balance his quirks with what fits for a film, but much like in the way of Michael Bay, a trademark often overshadows context, which in turn changes said trademark into a tired, laughable trope.
Even beyond that, the characters in “Song to Song” are legitimately some of the worst, most boring people I’ve ever had to endure in a film I’ve seen in theaters. Fassbender’s Cook is a despicable womanizer who destroys everything he touches with an almost giddy glee that Malick seems to almost legitimize in a positive light. Mara’s Faye is as boring and disposable as female character come, while Gosling’s BV is a pretentious, self-involved wuss who depends the entire film flip-flopping on whether he loves Faye of not, which gets pretty irritating after the third break-up. Collectively, every single person in this film acts in such a ridiculous, pretentious way that it’s hard to suspend any sense of disbelief in characters that do some of the most random, self-involved actions of anyone I’ve seen on screen before. (Check out this article detailing all of these things here.)
Oh yeah, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe and Val Kilmer are also randomly in this movie for five seconds each and for no reason at all.
Should we talk about the pace of “Song to Song?” Let’s. This film, clocking in at 129 minutes, might have been one of the most excruciatingly long filmgoing experiences I have ever endured. It’s not that the film is particularly long by any means, but the glacial pace of the film actually makes the film feel like it’s pushing three hours, as opposed to a bit over two. I picked out about six separate times that the film could’ve wrapped up and ended at, but “Song to Song” insists on milking this “story” for everything it has, taking the final act of the film into such ridiculous territory that I almost couldn’t help but laugh.
Are there positives in “Song to Song?” Yes, but only a few. While the film is visually jarring, the cinematography from master DP Emmanuel Lubezki is lush and gorgeous, even if its empty and meaningless. The performances in the film are game, but suffer far too much from the character choices made by Malick and the actors. The music in the film is also well-found, if strangely out of place.
There was a point about 40 minutes in “Song to Song” where I checked the time, only to find out that only 2/3 of an hour had passed, and I legitimately considered getting up and walking out, because I simply didn’t think I could endure anymore of the pretentious hipster-porn that “Song to Song” perpetuates with an almost sly grin, despite not a single second of it working. Though, knowing that this film had to be talked about, I stuck it out to find that things not only endured, but got worse as the film went on. I would love to say that I don’t know where “Song to Song” went sour, but I can pinpoint exactly where it went wrong: Malick. For someone who I respect as a filmmaker as much as I truly do, it’s about time Malick take a step back to consider who he wants to be as a filmmaker in the future, because this “daring” sort of filmmaking he’s going for here feels more like laziness than anything else. “Song to Song” follows in the footsteps of “Knight of Cups” by having the actors improv the entire film based on a simple story structure, which leaves “Song to Song” feeling completely aimless if anything else. I’m heartbroken that my first experience seeing a Malick film on the big screen is with “Song to Song,” but I hope the response to the film triggers a sort of motivation in Malick to seek out the roots that made him so poignantly effective, because self-involved, rambling Malick just isn’t cutting it behind the camera.
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, with Natalie Portman.
Runtime: 129 minutes
Rating: R for some sexuality, nudity, drug use, and language.
Now playing exclusively at the Regal Manor Twin and AMC Carolina Pavilion.
Broad Green Pictures presents, in association with Waypoint Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, “Song to Song”