Review: Song to Song

“They had to have known this was funny.”

A little more than midway through Terrence Malick’s intermittently beautiful, mostly dire new film Song to Song, there is a glimpse of a much more interesting film that could have been. Rooney Mara’s presumably execrable indie band is playing at an Austin music festival when suddenly their performance is hijacked by a disheveled, inebriated Val Kilmer. Kilmer proceeds to throw uranium, that he claims to have received from his mother, at the crowd of insufferable of Austin hipsters. Distressingly, this is the only scene that Kilmer (who was uncredited for his role) appears in. Malick always leaves hours and hours’ worth of footage on the cutting room floor, so there may in fact have been enough here to build an entire film of its own out of. The resulting film would’ve been undeniably slight, but so too was Song to Song.

Song to Song’s complete lack of substance would be hard to discern from its 129 minute running time. For at least the first hour of that running time, Malick’s sheer visual virtuosity is enough to hold the attention despite the narrative flimsiness. While repeated shots of water, fields, and people staring morosely out of windows can get tiresome, the singularity of Malick (and the incomparable cinematography of three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s) eye is undeniable. At its best (aside from the Kilmer scene), Song to Song works as a virtuosic montage of home movies involving extremely boring people. The biggest issue is that there is no connective thread to any of this.

What “narrative” there is essentially is that Michael Fassbender is an arrogant, caddish, and self-destructive music mogul (who’s moguldom seems entirely confined to Austin, but whatever) who discovers Ryan Gosling (playing an even more irritating and less self-aware folkie version of his jazz nerd from La La Land) and Mara (a terrific actress here relegated to being a semi-sentient Anthropologie ad). Mara is in love with both Gosling and Fassbender. Along the way Fassbender meets Natalie Portman (playing a naïve, blonde, working-class, Texan waitress and kindergarten teacher, which would be more aggressively counterintuitive casting if Malick gave a single damn about character) and they have a tortured, kinky romance that ends very badly. Cate Blanchett (as in “two-time Academy Award winner and arguably the greatest onscreen performer working today” Cate Blanchett) shows up at some point to be disapproved of by Gosling’s mother. Holly Hunter gets to walk along a highway and cry at one point. Only Mara’s character is given a name that the audience hears, Faye, and that only happens during a brief conversation between Fassbender and Gosling.

There is a lot that is really quite perverse about Song to Song. Malick has recruited an extraordinary cast to be sad, white, and beautiful mannequins. He makes a movie about music with very little music. He enlists many rock icons for cameos, but largely non-musical ones; Johnny Rotten gets to dance drunkenly with Gosling, the Red Hot Chili Peppers get to wrestle with Fassbender, and Lubezki’s camera fixates on Iggy Pop’s remarkable well persevered abs. Patti Smith actually gets to play music, but her real purpose is to teach Mara about suffering. A Terrence Malick movie that features twerking should be compelling in and of itself, but it reveals a director who either has lost his touch or simply does not care.

At the screening I attended, there were many walkouts. Inappropriate and uncomfortable laughter at the overwrought, pseudo-philosophical voiceover was a regular occurrence. I overheard a middle-aged woman telling her friend “they had to have known this was funny.” I wish I shared her optimism. Instead, I saw a film that was made simply because it could have been. Everyone involved is so comfortable and secure in their reputations that they concluded, probably correctly, that they could simply do whatever they wanted, the product would get released, and nobody would suffer any consequences for that. That everyone involved had such complete contempt for their audience should provoke a similar contempt in return from that audience.

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