You’re going to walk out of Song to Song thinking it’s either a masterpiece, or a disaster. There’s no middle ground. This is true for most of director Terrence Malick’s post-hiatus films. I still remember leaving The Tree of Life and hearing someone praise it to the heavens on one side of me, and listening to another person call it “pretentious trash” on the other side (everyone agrees the dinosaurs were awesome, though). But it’s especially true for his fifth movie this decade, after only making four between 1973-2005. For this movie at least I fall into the pretentious trash category, despite living in Austin, Texas, where a majority of Song was shot, and respecting Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and Natalie Portman, and loving Patti Smith and Iggy Pop (who both appear as themselves). Song to Song should be right up my alley — so what went wrong?
There are two things to expect from a Malick movie, good or bad: 1) it will look stunning, and 2) there won’t be a coherent narrative. Fittingly, Song to Song looks stunning. Emmanuel Lubezki’s radiant cinematography captures buildings that I’ve seen a million times in new ways; even the grackles, the loud trash-bird of Texas, look gorgeous. And there isn’t a coherent narrative. The loose premise is that Faye (Mara) is an aspiring singer-songwriter who gets trapped in a love triangle with handsome producer Cook (Fassbender) and handsome musician BV (Gosling); much admiring of her midriff ensues. Waitress Rhonda (Portman) enters the movie about halfway through, unlike Christian Bale, Haley Bennett, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom shot scenes for the film that ended up not making the final cut.
Portman probably could have been removed, too, and no one would have noticed; not because she gives a bad performance — everyone is credibly gung-ho — but because the script gives her character little reason to exist. Cook meets Rhonda, Cook takes Rhonda to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cook makes Rhonda participate in threesomes with hookers (including one who, in typical movie fashion, has a heart of gold), and so on. There’s a narrative there, but the non-linear storytelling isn’t easy to grasp — scenes float by like they belong in a flip book — and the characters are so thinly drawn and unlikable that you may find yourself losing interest in their motives. Faye is the kind of stylish meanderer who stands by herself a party but wants everyone to be aware of her at all times, while the utterly repugnant Cook masks his bruised ego through displays of wealth and backstage access.
These are self-centered, boring, wealthy white people, who, in one particularly uncomfortable scene, travel to Mexico and act like obnoxiously entitled tourists around the locals. Which, fine! Self-centered, boring, wealthy white people can be fun to watch (I’ve seen every episode of Friends), but the viewer needs to empathize with at least one character, and the director should give the viewer a reason to keep watching. Song to Song stubbornly refuses to judge anyone or anything, though, leaving you to decide whether you merely dislike the characters — who wander from sumptuous house to sumptuous house, who we’re told are talented but never see the evidence, who spend a majority of their time around infinity pools — or actively hate them. With Malick’s direction constantly floating around the actors, like the camera is futilely trying for a human connection, Song to Song is like watching a gorgeous home video of a family you don’t know, and don’t want to. Not when Big Freedia — who makes a quick cameo — is playing down the street.
Malick worked on Song to Song for six years, and maybe because it was stalled for so long, his message, whatever it was, is lost. It’s a love letter to Austin… but the only time anyone has fun is in Mexico. It’s an appreciation of live music… but we rarely see more than five seconds of any performance during the numerous festival scenes. (Why give Mara a Fader Fort wristband — a tiny detail that paints a beautifully specific picture for anyone who’s attended SXSW — if she’s not going to see any bands?) It’s called Song to Song… but, actually, there are some great non-diegetic songs from the likes of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Good thing, too, because the music is a blessed relief from the dialogue (“I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you”), which is mostly conveyed through self-serious, whispered voiceover — think Mr. Robot reading slam-poetry. The realest moments in the movie are Smith chanting “horses, horses, horses,” a crazed-looking Val Kilmer cutting his hair off, and Gosling saying, “You get used to waiting, drifting.” No kidding.
Song to Song comes out in select theaters on March 17