Review: Terrence Malick's 'Song To Song' Sings A Tired Old Tune

Terrence Malick's screwing with us, right? The distinguished director has been making the same movie out of the same B-roll footage for years now, and it reaches an unfortunate climax with Song to Song. Basically the same damn movie as Knight of Cups, only replacing the shady excesses of Hollywood for the equally corrupting music industry, it's another example of a director who should have quit while he was ahead because now he's little more than a punchline.

Once again foregoing narrative in favor of creating disconnected mood poems about love, anguish, lust, and deceit, Malick is speaking purely to the converted here. And those who continue to support him will point to the breath-taking cinematography as the primary reason why. Admittedly, his movies are gorgeous and so is this one, but none of it matters without emotional context. And there's something weird going on with the number of people kissing and nuzzling Rooney Mara's frequently-exposed stomach. Malick has taken this whole navel gazing thing to a new extreme. Mara, along with main co-stars Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, exist in the same dreamlike state as the characters in Malick's other movies, only this one is set in the wild, paradisiac Austin music landscape. The only difference Malick can find between this setting and others is to have his stars prance around in underpasses rather than beaches, to frolic uncontrollably in McMansions rather than office buildings. Such is the vapidity of Malick's thematic scope.

Even if we didn't know there is essentially no script, it would have become obvious pretty quickly. Through all of the banal narration emerges the barest wisp of a story. Mara plays Faye, a secretary/dog walker/aspiring guitarist who hooks up with Cook (Fassbender), suspect record exec; and BV, a na├»ve musician played by Gosling. Mara's character sort of drifts between the two of them, playing them off one another as all of their emotional baggage piles up.  Moments of happiness will find Mara wrestling with Fassbender and Gosling like kids at a weekend sleepover. At a moment's notice and apparently at Malick's whim, those characters will flip into despair the very next scene. You can always see it coming. There will be a moment where someone stares a little too long, that's your signal bad times are coming. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Berenice Marlohe play women who get sucked into this orbit and ultimately have their hearts broken. They probably feel the same uncertainty about what's going on that we do.  These are the most painfully tortured people ever, and we never quite understand why, so it all comes across as pretentious and self-pitying. Perhaps realizing it doesn't work to have his somber, wealthy characters riding around in private jets and expensive cars, Malick manufactures moments of sadness that are quickly forgotten by the next scene. A random woman on the street begs for money, BV cares for his ailing father, Faye thinks she's a failure. Gosling and Mara share an easy chemistry that works, but it's completely separate from the narrative and most of it looks like extra footage Malick shot of them horsing around. It's not like they share any actual conversations. The only interactions are between Gosling and the underrated Linda Emond as his mother, who isn't fond of BV's choice in women. As tensions between them are raised you can't help wishing there was more confrontation like this.

Brief glimpses of actual rock concerts and painted warrior fans in mosh pits paint a picture of freedom and expression that none of the characters share in. But in terms of any exploration of the music scene, or at least some live concert footage, there is shockingly little. Appearances by Patti Smith, Flea, and Iggy Pop only hint at the movie Malick could have made, and probably still could if he wanted to. He confessed that the original Song to Song cut was a massive eight hours, trimmed down to a still overly lengthy 129 minutes. If you needed a finer example of how aimless his goals area at this point, there you go. Also, bear in mind the first two stars Malick promoted in photos years ago, Christian Bale and Haley Bennett, were completely left on the cutting room floor. They don't show up in the movie at all, along with dozens of other stars who shot scenes and are nowhere to be found. Malick has no idea what he's doing anymore.

I don't usually comment on the screenings I attend because usually it doesn't matter, but in this case it did. More than a dozen people walked out and I can hardly blame them. We keep getting sold a bill of goods that Malick's movies are life-changing somehow, but I don't see it. Well, I take that back. They will change my life from now on because I no longer feel the need to waste my time on them. Thank you for that, Song to Song.

Rating: 2 out of 5