When you have a movie starring Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, you might think that would be cause for celebration this weekend. But it turns out that the film they are in, Song To Song, is more like a cause for pain. As I say in my video review above, this latest piece of cinematic indulgence from director Terrence Malick is a waste of talent and time that basically is just the latest in a series of diminishing efforts from the formerly reclusive helmer who suddenly has decided to get prolific after what was virtually a 20-year hibernation period.
The man behind such significant achievements as Days Of Heaven, Badlands and The Thin Red Line managed to make only one film (2005’s sleep-inducing The New World) between 1998’s Best Picture Oscar nominee The Thin Red Line and his other Best Picture nominee, 2011’s masterful Palme d’Or winner The Tree Of Life. Even though the latter might have been too arty for some, it moved many and was successful. Unfortunately, he has sped up his output while slumming in a series of dreary but beautifully photographed (by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) minimalist snoozefests like 2012’s awful To The Wonder in which Ben Affleck walks aimlessly and endlessly in and out of frame; 2015’s head-scratching Knight Of Cups; and now his supposed survey of the Austin music scene Song To Song. Last year he even squeezed in an Imax documentary, Voyage Of Time.
His latest, though, simply squanders a great cast with more of the ever-tiring technique employed to good effect in Tree Of Life but lost in space in subsequent Malick output. His insistence on having his characters virtually whisper their lines in pedantic, often unintelligible voice-overs with bon mots like “I desperately want to find something real” (me too) is something that has become pretentious and no longer innovative as Malick keeps adding to his filmography. When characters actually spoke lines by moving their mouths to the dialogue, I wanted to stand up and cheer. It’s that kind of movie, folks.
At one point singer Patti Smith pops in holding a guitar and uttering a line that goes something like, “I just like to play the same chord.” That feels like Malick post-Tree Of Life. He is just playing the same old chord over and over. The negligible plot doesn’t really involve Austin’s music scene much at all, instead focusing on the inter-relationships of a number of characters. Gosling and Mara are aspiring musicians who are romantically involved until they aren’t, essentially broken up by a snake of a music exec (Fassbender) who has his own plans for each. Then there is Portman, who is smitten for some reason with Fassbender, and Blanchett, who becomes the new woman in Gosling’s life. Meanwhile, Mara has taken up with the character played by French actress Bérénice Marlohe, who has a nice moment where she gets a long Malick-time closeup in order to let a tear drip down her lovely face. All of this goes on for two hours and nine interminable minutes.
Malick, in a rare interview, told a SXSW audience (where the film premiered last weekend) that he actually had about eight hours of footage and that Song To Song could have been a miniseries. God help us. During that same interview, Fassbender said he would be acting his pants off only to look over and see Malick was filming a beetle instead. This movie feels like that, with several scenes drifting into Malick-y footage of birds flying in the sky and trees blowing in the wind. As a tip of the hat to the supposed musical setting — and actual footage shot at big concerts — there are cameos from the likes of Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Iggy Pop, who certainly livens up these proceedings with his all-too-brief appearance. Val Kilmer even turns up looking like an older version of his Jim Morrison in The Doors. Holly Hunter appears occasionally too, but none of these stars can save Malick from his own worst instincts.
Mara and Gosling come off best in their largely silent, whispered performances, while Fassbender seems to be trying too hard to be expressive in most of his scenes. But I don’t fault the actors, who clearly relished the opportunity to work with a man who has proved in the past that he isn’t afraid to cut any of them out of the picture if it doesn’t suit his vision at the end of his endless editing process. This film actually has a 2015 copyright at the end credits.
I realize my quibbles and qualms will all sound like blasphemy to his band of disciples who, like Trump supporters, will stand right in line with whatever he dishes out. But Malick can do better than this, so as for me, I say no. Producers are Sarah Green, Nicholas Gonda and Ken Kao. Broad Green puts it into limited release today.
Do you plan to see Song To Song? Let us know what you think.