Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender
Former cinematic recluse Terrence Malick has had a surge in creativity over the course of this decade unlike anything in his career previously, though the fruits of this late bloom have divided his audience; those that are charmed by his lighter-than-air touch and fondness for collage, and those who find their patience increasingly tested by the slightness of this work, the repetitiveness.
2011’s Palme D’Or winning The Tree Of Life was and is a wonder; a remarkable artistic feat and one of the signature films of the decade so far. But its swift follow-ups – To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups, Voyage Of Time and now Song To Song – have garnered only occasional praise. The amount of work is generous, but the method (unscripted moments narrated in hushed tones) has lost its profundity. Last year’s Knight Of Cups in particular seemed the most susceptible to criticism (admission; I actually like it quite a bit) as Christian Bale wandered despondently through vapid Hollywood excess like a man with the most exquisite first world problems. Finding it in UK cinemas wasn’t easy. Voyage Of Time has yet to even properly surface in the UK as far as I’ve seen. And while Malick insists that Song To Song marks the last effort in this cycle, has the auteur already alienated his audience?
Its a hard sell with all of this in mind, as Malick turns his focus to the live music scene; festivals, rock, punk. The aesthetic he’s interested in here is down and dirty, scuzzy, rebellious, defiant. But the style remains the same; elegant, floating, clean, relentlessly tasteful. Like an elder gentleman who is out of touch but keen to show the appearance of credibility, his touchstones are decades beyond their prime. Given his proficient ability to sell-out his own politics, the appearance of Johnny Rotten in particular is a joke. And while the likes of Patti Smith and Iggy Pop remain legends, Song To Song conspicuously omits music that is genuinely popular with young people at the moment or is simply young in itself, be it mainstream or counter cultural. The result is a bit like your dad calling you up to tell you he just got the new U2 CD.
The festival circuit is merely aesthetic backdrop, however. The film isn’t nearly as concerned with rock music and its abilities as it wants you to think it is, and rarely makes an effort to try to connect on these terms. Instead the film finds Malick returning to his recent preoccupation; men and women twirling around one another in love, talking with wistful hindsight, rolling around on top of the covers or leaning over expensive balconies, sitting pensively whenever they’ve had a fight or some nameless trouble has started testing them. It’s the same merry-go-round of relationships we’ve seen already, but with different voguish stars playing the parts.
This time around we have Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman. Four powerhouse talents lost in a ballet that none of them seem particularly prepared for. I’ve greatly admired prior works by all of these actors, but only the chameleonic Mara feels appropriately cast. With an array of different wigs/hairstyles, she kindles the truthfulness of a certain personality type as Faye; still shifting into parameters she can feel comfortable with, still ‘finding herself’. Her restless, dissatisfied spirit feels the most real. Her fella, Gosling’s ‘BV’, is an empty shell; a laughing man who looks like he strayed off of the set of a GAP advert. Fassbender’s A&R man Cook seems almost appropriately out of sync with the concept of passionate artistic expression; he’s a cocky, entitled sleazeball who conjures zero sympathy. Portman plays a waitress named Rhonda who gets a taste of the charmed life from Cook, but it’s all so that they can tussle without consequence in another series of Malick’s empty hotel rooms. There’s no particular consistency to any of them. Because it seems to resonate with her character, Mara is the only one who gets away with this.
Cate Blanchett turns up for a little, too.
Over the course of just over two hours of agonising meandering, the lives of these people partially intersect. ‘BV’ is a singer/songwriter and he argues with Cook over royalties. Cook offers Faye a recording contract, but seems more interested in touching her behind. This only minutes after us seeing his burgeoning fling with Rhonda. Chronology seems arbitrary here. Just as the scenes themselves are improvised, so seems the sequencing of the edit. One imagines that Song To Song was fed into a machine designed to randomly generate a Malick film, and this is merely one iteration of what popped out the other end. The film’s title suggests connectivity, but the content itself seems just careless in its assemblage.
I’m sure it’s not and that this is a slight on Malick’s esteemed editing team who’ve worked damned hard here to try to create something out of nothing. Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is as dreamy as ever, but where his previous collaborations with Malick all managed to manifest signature images and searing moments, Song To Song achieves nothing as inspired. It truly feels like the last ebb of creativity in this streak is draining away as you’re watching.
To be vaguely disinteresting is one thing, but Song To Song routinely flirts with being just bad. “What does it feel like to be a girl?” “What don’t I know?” ‘BV’ asks a stranger at a festival, moments quickly cut together like a ludicrously pretentious gag reel, Gosling coming across like a parody of his La La Land character. And was that Val Kilmer attacking equipment on stage with a chainsaw? Oh dear.
Malick is still an interesting filmmaker, but ultimately his choice to end this series here isn’t quite as wise as it could’ve been. It feels unfortunately overdue. To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups may not have been peak Malick, but they’re positively compelling next to this. The soundtrack, as ever, remains tastefully classical for the most part. And when Malick tries to mix that up and inject something more energetic, more rambunctious as counterpoint, it quickly falls flat. Given the supposed focus here, that’s as telling as anything; this isn’t really anybody’s movie.