Terrence Malick’s “Song to Song” opens with what seems like a trailer for the rest of the film, yet the two hours that follow introduce little more in narrative content or character development. The film also disappoints in its overindulgent similarity to Malick’s recent work, such as the 2015 “Knight of Cups.” Although visually stunning, and occasionally impressive in its ambition to portray human intimacy, the lack of a narrative theme results in a work that is for the most part annoyingly boring.
The film stars Rooney Mara as a soul-and-self-searching young songwriter called Faye who enters a love triangle with Ryan Gosling’s charming musician and Michael Fassbender’s manipulative music executive. Faye seems to be the movie’s focus, although its attention drifts (in somewhat the same way that the movie’s characters do in their lives) from character to character, with each presenting his or her perspective on fragmentary moments of their lives in a series of voiceovers certainly familiar to any fans of Malick’s oeuvre. The performances in the film rely heavily on the obvious natural charisma of the main trio, which unfortunately results in a sense of boredom for audiences who have seen Gosling play another struggling yet agreeable musician in “La La Land” or aren’t interested in suffering through (and with) Fassbender in yet another one of his roles as a cold-blooded, debauched, and unhappy man.
The voiceovers seem to be a double-edged sword for Malick. Occasionally they result in laughably cheesy moments, such as a scene when Faye talks about her desire to be weightless and to fly away, accompanied by shots of the trio departing to what looks like Mexico on a private jet. In other cases, however, they fortify the supporting characters. When the film introduces the music executive’s internal perspective, for example, the voiceover evokes empathy rather than producing eyerolls, as it might have in earlier scenes narrated by Faye. However, it is unfortunate that while female characters dominate the voiceovers, their stories in the film do little to further explore their psyches. Natalie Portman’s teacher-turned-waitress Rhonda, for instance, becomes a perfect trope in the story after she marries the music executive.
Malick shot most scenes in his collage-like, highly stylized manner, with quick cuts and impressionistic cinematography that make it hard to tell if the narrative is entirely linear within scenes. The framing of architecture makes it highly suggestive, and Malick rarely shows two characters fully in the same image, often cutting off parts of faces. The actors’ bodies and spatial relationships become important clues to their feelings for each other, especially in the overwhelming absence of dialogue.
Malick is aided in the creation of such images by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. He translates the emotional exuberance the characters experience into intense, beautiful visuals full of light despite the seemingly necessary imprecision that comes with Malick’s signature use of handheld camera. The technical brilliance of the two allows Malick to realize his ability as master of portraying intimacy. Despite rarely taking the visual perspective of any of the characters, the film never feels voyeuristic.
However, while the music industry is the focus of the film, the relevance of music in the movie is questionable. Despite numerous cameos by artists such as Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, only Smith and Lykke Li play truly important roles. Smith appears as a sage mentor (although very rarely a musical one) to Faye, and her air of wisdom is convincing enough to warrant her addition to the movie’s array of characters. Lykke Li, on the other hand, is much less successful in the translation of her real-life enigma to her onscreen counterpart as a freewheeling ex-girlfriend of Gosling’s musician. Finally it seems that despite setting the movie in the music scene of Austin, the only role of music (beyond setting and disrupting moods, which is rather commonplace) in the movie is to create conditions for the characters to dance and for Malick to further cinematically explore physical contact through visual language in these sequences.
Putting the music theme aside, most sequences of “Song to Song” can blend into any other recent Malick movies. Both the characters and the aesthetics are a note too familiar, and the film soon starts feeling conventional rather than experimental. Malick seems to romanticize the irregularity of the lives of musicians, without ever truly engaging with the nature of their work.
—Staff writer Petra Laura Oreskovic can be reached at email@example.com.