By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
Terrence Malick and I don’t always see eye to eye. It’s nothing against the guy personally, but his films, for me, are very hit and miss. Older Malick, back in the days of THE THIN RED LINE, is brilliant. That film in particular is a standout for its very vocal, powerful storytelling and vigorous tale of war. Then there’s modern day TREE OF LIFE Malick. It’s stylistically similar, but completely vacant in the realm of storytelling. They don’t work for me like they do with so many others. Going into SONG TO SONG, Malick’s latest, expectations were certainly low, which is why I didn’t expect to feel the way I do about it.
Malick’s films often defy an ordinary plot summary. They’re about so much without being about anything really in particular. SONG TO SONG continues this trend, taking us on a hypnotic trail through the music scene in Austin, Texas. Ryan Gosling plays BV, our closest thing to a primary protagonist. While rising up through the ranks with the help of already established musician Cook (Michael Fassbender), BV falls in love. He develops feelings for Faye (Rooney Mara). Faye, however, is also dating Cook, and as they all try to make a living for themselves, they each tangent off into other relationships and dark obsessions.
It’s a series of never-ending love triangles as Malick journeys into a world grounded in reality. He shot the film without a script on set, something he’s known to do from time to time, and never told any of the actors what the film was really about. Frankly, I’m still trying to work it out for myself. Cook dates Faye, then winds up in a relationship with Rhonda (Natalie Portman). BV also dates Faye, but winds up dating Amanda (Cate Blanchett). Couples come and couples go, without any real sense of plot or narrative coherence. It certainly feels like a movie made without a script, so massive kudos to the editor for actually being able to put something together. Sadly, Mara and Blanchett don’t share any screen time, so that much anticipated CAROL reunion is yet to arrive.
The film is long and slow, able to grasp your attention through its existential, artsy mind frame. It’s a gorgeous tale of love and music, focusing more on the people than it is the story, but there’s a dreadful feeling of self-superiority oozing within every scene. This is Terrence Malick at his most Terrence Malick, both for better and for worse. The only real link the audience is allowed to hold onto is through these actors, who are engaging enough in their own right to make this a somewhat enjoyable movie. SONG TO SONG is essentially a group of remarkable talents acting for the sake of acting. That alone makes it worth the price of admission, or maybe the price of an at home rental.
Still, if it weren’t for the theatre experience, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this film nearly as much. It draws you in in a world with no distractions, something that can’t be said for watching a movie at home. The camera work ranges from stunning to abstract. Long, free camera movements are sublime, capturing this world in an authentic, spiritual essence. It’s often quite profound and almost as if this film were made without actors and extras in a real world environment. Then, every so often, it cuts back to fish eye, and as is the case with fish eye, it’s revolting. I hate it. It’s so ugly. The lens may be for some, but I can’t stand it, let alone watching it in the cinema.
Being different doesn’t automatically equate to being good, something Malick needs to understand. SONG TO SONG goes out of its way to be unconventional. Everything flows in a non-linear fashion, and this artfulness often speaks its mind, but in the progress winds up loosing audience members. The editing cuts back and forth through time, confusing character relations and making them indecipherable. Characters will be dating someone in one scene, followed by a montage of them with a person they broke up with earlier, and then it cuts back to them dating a completely different person. Time is in an endless, INTERSTELLAR-styled loop with a varying display of haircuts, and Mathew McConaughey is nowhere to be found.
Of all the relationships, the only one I found myself caring about was that of Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling. It’s the only one that feels genuine, even if it’s full of cheating, lies and draining voiceover. Gosling and Mara give sincerity to their performances, and although if it’s never as emotional as the actors try to make it, both performances, or in fact every performance in this movie, is extraordinary. Having no script does come with inherent downsides, but getting genuine performances that aren’t based on any pre-decided lines is one of the many positives. Oh, also, Val Kilmer is in this movie for all of five minutes and I literally have no idea why.
Unfortunately SONG TO SONG remains a cycle of events with no link. Again, the editor must’ve had a nightmare trying to piece together a story out of the footage provided, and it’s a job I can’t comprehend. The original cut of this film clocked in at EIGHT hours long, yet throughout all eight hours there’s hardly a story to be found. Malick isn’t saying anything. He’s directing without purpose. It’s fun to watch these actors just exist, but their stories lack depth. They’re just all of a sudden in a certain place at a certain time. Every line is a throwaway line. There’s beautiful moments scattered throughout, and it is an encapsulation of life itself, but reality doesn’t always equal the best movie.
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