Since the well-deserved success of the experimental “The Tree of Life,” director Terrence Malick has further pursued an impressionistic approach to film. Instead of developing narratives with conventional screenplays, he now focuses on evoking feelings and feeling his way through production. That decision, though, has caused his last two efforts – “To the Wonder” and “Knight of Cups” – to veer into self-parody. It is profoundly disappointing that Malick’s newest release, “Song to Song,” is no different from them.
The central plot of “Song to Song” is much simpler than Malick’s tedious jumble of scenes would lead you to think. Two musicians struggling to make it in the Austin music scene, Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling), fall in love. But Faye is also in a relationship with Cook (Michael Fassbender), an unethical music executive. When BV finds out, he severs his ties with Faye and Cook, and all three characters set out on journeys of self-reflection and change.
Unfortunately, the film’s meandering pace and spare dialogue dampen any dramatic thrust present in the thin plot. For those who catch Malick’s drift, they’ll be on board. Everyone else is out of luck.
At least Malick appears to have had no shortage of crew members willing to follow his lead during this film’s production in 2011. A multitude of recognizable faces, from Natalie Portman and Val Kilmer to Patti Smith and Flea, play roles of varying degrees of importance. As is par for the course with any Malick movie, a few actors that shot the movie, including Christian Bale and Haley Bennett, did not make the final cut.
Mara is introspective and raw, while Gosling is charming, though his character lacks layers. Fassbender supplies selfish ruthlessness, and Portman, who plays Cook’s wife, responds with subdued but tragic silence.
The leads’ performances are meaningful and provocative, and their work is almost always lifted up by Malick’s knack for turning the mundane into the wondrous. Austin has never looked this good on the silver screen, with Lake Austin, South Congress and Zilker Park making appearances. While Austinites will enjoy recognizing familiar locations, the city ultimately has little to do with the narrative.
Impressively, several scenes were shot onstage and backstage during concerts at Austin City Limits Festival, South by Southwest and Fun Fun Fun Fest. However, Malick may have been better off filming on sets instead of in real settings, as Gosling and Mara are often forced to stand backstage and act as if they’re waiting to perform. Because of this, Malick offers barely a taste of BV and Faye’s music careers, and there is little sense of who they are and what their conflicts are as artists.
This all ties back to “Song to Song’s” main problem: it takes the term “open-ended” to the extreme. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a lot of the movie is intentionally half-baked and it ends up rather underwhelming. The characters spend so much time wandering to vague, detached voiceovers of fragmented thoughts that it’s hard not to drift off into sleep, and Malick’s points about the nature of love are nearly lost in the shuffle of painterly images.
“Song to Song” only achieves the poetic brilliance it strives for during a breathtaking sequence at Enchanted Rock. Here, BV washes Faye in pond water in a scene which properly balances visuals, character, emotion and symbolism. As the lovers tenderly embrace in the warmth of the setting sun, Malick demonstrates he still has the capacity to transcend his peers. Time will tell if he does again.
“Song to Song”
Running Time: 120 minutes
Score: 2.5/5 stars