Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Badlands) is stuck. More specifically, he’s stuck making the same movie over and over again. Even more to the point, he’s stuck making movies in the same way, and the wildly inventive, almost mystical way in which he and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki made The Tree of Life has become less a blueprint for future works and more of a mold into which Malick pours random images of people twirling around on beaches, in homes and apartments, through fields of tall grass, and, more specifically in the case of Song to Song, on the outskirts and backstage at a music festival in Austin, Texas, where most of this movie was shot several years ago.
Somewhere in the muck and mire is a story about a love triangle among three people in the music business. The centerpiece of Song to Song is Faye (Rooney Mara) a bass player and would-be songwriter who falls for two men—the obvious choice, BV (Ryan Gosling), a songwriter; and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music producer and executive, who seems to enjoy manipulating people and exerting control over them whenever he can. He’s a terrible person to fall for, so of course Faye does just that while maintaining a fairly run-of-the-mill relationship with BV. Making matters all the more complicated, the two men are also quite close. The film’s timelines are all over the place, but at various points in these on-again/off-again pairings, Cook lets his guard down with a local waitress (Natalie Portman) and falls for her hard, while BV does a little tumble with an older woman named Amanda (Cate Blanchett).
Every line of dialogue seems to be spoken with corresponding choreography, and after more than two hours of this, I was ready to throw myself into traffic. The most potentially fascinating part of Song to Song is its setting in the Austin music scene, and while a great number of moments take place backstage (or even on stage) at various concerts and festivals in the area, the music is muffled and brief, adding nothing to the scenes and often only serving to obscure the characters’ voices. The only true upside of being in the midst of musicians is that every so often, a familiar face will enter the scene and provide some actual words of wisdom while the actors sit and attempt to look unphased. Cameos by the likes of John Lydon, Iggy Pop, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and some extended moments featuring the wise Patti Smith are among the best moments in the movie.
The actual point of any of this clearly escaped me, and if there was a deeper meaning in the film, it either went right over my head, or I stopped caring at a certain point and it drifted right by. What seems more likely is that Malick likes posing his distractingly good-looking cast in ways where they appear contemplative, and we’re just supposed to assume they’re thinking deep thoughts. Instead what he’s done is given us a movie filled with empty vessels who care more about success than each other, so what is our motivation for enjoying their company in any way?
After about an hour of floating camera movement and ethereal dancing by the actors, I began to find Song to Song not just pointless and dull, but outright unpleasant. I’ve been doing this job too long to care if a film has an actual plot or likable characters; give me something experimental with asshole lead characters any day of the week. But Malick is almost challenging us to enjoy ourselves on any level. It’s as if he’s attempting to inject a soul into characters and events that are inherently soulless. There’s certainly no mistaking a Malick movie for anyone else’s, and I have no doubt that Song to Song is exactly the movie he wanted to make with his three credited editors and endless supply of performances on the cutting-room floor (including an entire character played by Christian Bale).
Malick is not so much a storyteller any longer but a captor of moods and emotions. I’m not convinced we’re supposed to even believe what we’re seeing is real any longer; it certainly doesn’t resemble the way people behave in the real world. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to catch the filmmaker’s last two films (To the Wonder and Knight of Cups), then you’ve essentially seen this. Do with that information what you will. I’ll certainly never give up on one of the great living directors, but he’s in desperate need of re-inventing himself once again.