In terms of content and meaningfulness, Terrence Malick’s Song to Song is the cinematic equivalent of a Trump press conference. Incoherent, disconnected, self-interrupting, obsessed with pointless minutiae and crammed full of odd, limp stabs at profundity from a closed-off man in his 70s who apparently has no ability to edit or accept constructive criticism. Malick, too, still inspires a passionate minority of hardcore devotees who will defend everything he does, no matter how inept or ludicrous, out of some bizarre sense of base loyalty towards the man who made Days of Heaven 39 years ago. Even for those groupies, this new humiliating wreck of a movie—the reclusive director’s worst ever—presents a test of will.
Set among the music scene in Austin and filmed five years ago by Malick regular Emmanuel Lubezki, the film at least gives its locale a good name, with sumptuous Steadicam shots of the Texas capital aplenty. Yet still, it’s difficult not to laugh at Malick’s goofy fetish for floor-to-ceiling windows and water shimmering in pools, which has by now devolved to the point of banality. More seriously, his strange recent obsession with casting beautiful movie stars to play brooding, boring white people results in a dream ensemble (Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Holly Hunter, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett) utterly wasted in a vacuous non-story about a love quadrangle.
But the actors cannot be blamed for Malick’s folly. As the film’s central couple, Mara and Gosling do nothing wrong. And watching them, you sympathize with their dilemma: jumping at the opportunity to work with Malick, given his legendary status, but forced to read submoronic voiceover dialogue that would make a Hallmark card writer go postal. Don’t believe how bad it is? Then brace yourself for this. These are actual snippets of real narration from the film:
“The birds said we’d love each other forever.”
“I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you.”
“They have a beauty in their life that makes me ugly.”
“Save me from my bad heart.”
“I want all the pain to be for something.”
“I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me.”
“I’m a beast. Still not unhappy about it.”
“Mercy was a word. I never thought I needed it.”
“You get used to drifting, waiting. They say follow the light.”
“I took sex, a gift, and played with it. I played with the flame of life.”
Say no more. But if only banality, weird movie-star worship, and time-wasting were Malick’s worst offenses. In the final analysis, what’s most disturbing about Song to Song is that this once-great artist appears to have lost any interest whatsoever in the lives of regular people. That also ties into his lack of depth or finesse on the topic of chemistry or sex. Given the presence of both Blanchett and Mara in the film (mercifully, they don’t share scenes, and this film was shot before Carol), it is particularly creepy that Malick gives Mara’s character a girlfriend, only to eventually send her back into the sinewy arms of her ex-boyfriend (Gosling), where her true love can be restored. Retrograde much, Terry?
Indeed, though the movie is too dull and silly to get worked up over, you’ll find yourself searching in the margins of each shot for something or someone tangible to grasp onto. The cameos by famous musicians in the film are tedious (and lingering on Iggy Pop’s leathery chest is a gag that felt old 20 years ago) but Malick does discover one shard of grace in the casting of Patti Smith as herself. She’s only onscreen for about two minutes, but when she’s there, with that extraordinarily real, unglamorous face and those eyes that have seen so much, you briefly feel in the presence of wisdom. It’s amazing, quite frankly, that Malick didn’t leave her on the cutting room floor. D