Terrence Malick, the auteur who used to spend a decade or so between film projects, returns to the screen this week with , his fifth film in six years. It follows 2016's Knight of Cups and 2012's To the Wonder, and if you've seen either of those films, well, you've basically seen Song To Song.
Like those previous works, it focuses on the romantic relationships between some barely fleshed out men and women, this time centered in the Austin, Texas, music scene. Rooney Mara is in a band, and once worked for a music producer (Michael Fassbender) before becoming his lover. At a party, she meets another songwriter and musician (Ryan Gosling). They fall in love, though Mara can't bring herself to end things with Fassbender, who has promised to boost both of their careers.
For a while, they all wander around Texas and Mexico, a Jules and Jim-esque trio. But truth and lies are revealed, with the lovers realizing the producer has essentially been screwing them both. The trio parts ways, finding hope for new love in the forms of Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, and Natalie Portman.
Now, all of this plot is only vaguely hinted at, and for the most part, has to be inferred. (Also requiring inference: All of the characters' names, which you wouldn't know they actually had until they're revealed in the ending credits.)
Malick hasn't had much interest in plot for years now, and of his last three movies, this one is the most obviously script-less, with scene after scene that feels like he brought his actors to a location and told them to do whatever they wanted. I guess what they wanted to do was lean against walls and into each other, wander rooms, and occasionally chase each other across a beautiful backdrop, because that's basically all we get. I bet at least 90 of its almost 145 minute running time is just wall-leaning.
There's not much dialogue in Song To Song, and what is there is often fragmentary and muffled. Instead, we get the usual bit of "Malickian" narration, with the characters questioning their lives, choices, and futures, but too often sounding like they're reciting bad high school poetry.
These people are supposed to be so focused on their music that they're messing up their personal lives for it, but we never hear any of them actually perform anything. Malick relies on footage shot during Austin's SXSW and Fun Fun Fun Fest to fill in for the lack of original music, so we get plenty of backstage moments featuring the likes of Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith, who has several scenes where she can be heard talking about her marriage with Fred Smith to Mara's character.
Having ill-defined characters means you'd better cast actors who can do a lot with a little, but only Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett are able to rise to the level needed. Both are actors that can command a scene through the sheer strength of their natural charisma, no words needed. I would gladly watch Gosling fold napkins that look like roasted chickens with Blanchett for hours, but sadly, we only get a few seconds of that in Song To Song.
Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman, two actresses that are remarkably similar physically, are also similar in their acting styles, and don't flourish well in roles that don't require them to do much talking. Portman is also badly cast as someone who is supposed to be a simple Texas gal with big blonde hair and bigger boobs, someone who would catch the eye of a rich cad like Fassbender. She doesn't pull it off.
Mara is equally void. In one scene, she starts to make out with her hot new French girlfriend as the girlfriend's dog sits in the background of the shot, just looking at the scene in front of him. So dull was this supposedly hot make-out session that I just kept my eye on that dog, dying to see what he might do next. Alas, Malick's inability to let any shot linger for long means I never did get to see what that dog eventually did.
The first half of Malick's career centered on period pieces with tough, working class characters, like the teenage killers in Badlands, the farm workers of Days of Heaven, and the soldiers of The Thin Red Line. The juxtaposition between these seemingly simple people, their lyrical inner monologues, and the beauty of the often hard world around them helped audiences see history in a new way. That Malick took so long between pictures also helped; it's hard to grow tired of a cinematic style you only see every ten years of so.
But we have officially reached Malick fatigue. The modern stories he's choosing to tell, minimal as they may be, just don't lend themselves well to the Malick style. Instead of archetypes, the films are filled with barely defined types; pretty faces, wandering through pretty rooms, speaking pretty words. Pretty vacant.Song To Song