The last few Terrence Malick films have seen an emergence of a pattern for the once-reclusive filmmaker who has taken an unexpected prolific turn since the start of the decade. Malick crafts these films that unconcerned with narrative and more the exploration of themes, examining ambition and love through a ponderous detachment. Characters embrace as an actor delivers a whispered voiceover before the auteur cuts away to sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree. This phase of Terrence Malick’s career has been divisive amongst his admirers and critics, though the filmmaker has always retained his legion of devotees. Now comes Malick’s latest in his trilogy of detached love, Song to Song, which is mostly interchangeable with To the Wonder or Knight of Cups.
Set against the backdrop of the Austin music scene, Song to Song has little to do with music and a lot to do with a love triangle that unfolds between characters that are involved in the music industry in one way or another. Cook (Michael Fassbender) is a music producer that is tapped into the music scene. He lives in gorgeous, expansive mansions and lives a life where the party never ends. Sometimes Cook spends his evenings with his receptionist Faye (Rooney Mara), who is doing so in the hopes of one day accelerating her music career. Soon Faye meets BV (Ryan Gosling) and the two start dating, while Faye sometimes still sees Cook behind BV’s back. Meanwhile, BV and Cook have worked together on a few songs and some questionable business dealings leads to a falling out. In Song to Song, romances are ignited and flame out, with each of the leads having various flings with actresses played by Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Bérénice Marlohe.
Unlike Malick’s last two features, Song to Song is mostly interested in the perspective of Rooney Mara’s Faye as she tries to navigate this world of love triangles and professional ambition. The disembodied voiceover that dominates the film is mostly provided by Mara, and it’s an interesting little change of pace for Malick, who has always seem more fascinated with male perspective; which is not to say that the men of Song to Song don’t get their moments to whisper their philosophical musings over footage sunlight flaring amidst nature. None of what occurs within the film nor its narration seems fresh or insightful, even in the abstract context of Malick’s esteemed filmography. As the film pushes past the two hour mark it becomes more and more like an endurance test to see just how much of Malick’s self-indulgence you can withstand for a rather rote look at a love triangle.
Reteaming with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick fills Song to Song with the imagery that has dominated his last two films. The camera swoops in and out of characters, often lingering on the women characters from the shoulders down. During some of the musical festivals the movie was filmed at, Lubezki uses extremely wide lenses that give the movie a disorienting fish eye look. And of course there are plenty of moments where sunlight glistens through plants. Many scenes take place in posh mansions and stylish estates, which may work well as a comment on the materialistic pursuit of success but doesn’t add much to film’s setting of the indie music scene.
The fact remains that there’s little purpose to the film’s setting within the Austin music scene. This entire love triangle could just as easily been placed in Los Angeles with a disaffected screenwriter like Knight of Cups and little would be changed. Iggy Pop and Patti Smith make appearances, with Smith getting most of the film’s musician related dialogue. As for the film’s characters, we’re rarely greeted with them doing anything music related. There’s a scene or two with Gosling at a piano and we briefly see Fassbender in the recording studio. As for Rooney Mara’s Faye and her ambitions to be a singer, there’s just little presented to make us even realize that’s her aspirations. She stands onstage with a guitar besides the garage band The Black Lips for a couple of seconds, but very little of Song to Song has anything to do with playing or creating music and art. It genuinely feels like a form of gimmickry that we wouldn’t expect from Terrence Malick.
The reality is that Song to Song is Terrence Malick amplifying his style to 11 to diminished results. Of course, fans of Malick’s style will be enamored with the film and its approach to the human drama of love and ambition. This, like the last couple films by Malick, is a divisive film. Those familiar with Terrence Malick will know what to expect from Song to Song, which might just be the capper of a personal trilogy that he’s churned out over the past five years. It’s a fittingly frustrating movie to cap off a frustrating trilogy that has repeatedly left me cold. I just couldn’t find anything catchy within Song to Song.
Song to Song
The latest film by writer-director Terrence Malick, Song to Song may be set against the backdrop of the Austin music scene but it’s simply a love triangle story featuring all of Malick’s stylistic tics.