Song to Song
2017, R, 129 min. Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 24, 2017
Song to Song will prove trying for any moviegoer looking for plot or linearity or grounding in something that looks like real life. For instance, this Austin-set film is billed as being about “struggling” musicians – the kind that play the main stage at ACL Fest and wander lakeside mansions in pressed slacks (rare breed, that). For another instance, humans in love here say things like “I love your soul” but never once ask whose turn it is to take out the trash. Of course, nobody should expect a hard tether to the familiar world from a Terrence Malick film, especially not in this increasingly experimental late-career stretch (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups). If you aren’t willing to come to Song to Song on the film’s own terms, you’re better off taking a pass.
This is the first Malick film I can think of, including his four other collaborations with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, that didn’t buckle my knees from so much beauty. The film was shot starting in 2011 in part with GoPro and other digital cameras, and some of it looks, well, kinda cruddy. Still, the grainy, even sloppy effect feels thematically true to a movie about people chasing sensation to the point of self-danger.
Here’s a cheat sheet to the intensely fragmentary narrative: Musicians Faye (Mara) and BV (Gosling) fall in love as a powerful producer named Cook (Fassbender) dangles various, mostly unspoken Mephistophelean bargains at them. These three and others come together and break apart, find new sexual partners and express many tortured thoughts via a ceaseless voiceover. If you are perceptive enough, you may be able to track the elliptical progression of these various erotic entanglements by Faye’s shifting haircut and color. (Near film’s end I was startled by the re-emergence of a blond bob; was this a flashback, or did she keep the wig in her bag as a party trick?)
It’s hard to say if the film’s opaqueness is a distraction, or a saving grace; certainly, this kind of Euro arty ethos is easier to swallow in another language. But to quote young Faye, “any experience is better than no experience,” and Song to Song offers two virgin experiences to willing viewers. We’ve seen the slackers, the cosmic cowboys, all that onscreen before, but this is an entirely different Austin being put down for posterity: moneyed Austin. The infinity pools, the body sushi, the so much poshness of people who don’t appear to ever work – it’s fascinating.
Better yet is Mara’s performance as the heartsick Faye. The actress has plenty occasion in Song to Song to do (and do very well) what we’ve seen her do before: be watchful, be guarded, be terribly melancholic. But she also has these stunning bursts of kinetic energy – gales of laughter, giddily dancing for her lover – and she’s mesmerizing. She’s never looked so joyful on camera. And then Malick ruins it by dropping the diegetic sound out and drowning these moments in more voiceover or some clever song.
So I guess I didn’t heed my own warning. I tried, but couldn’t meet the movie on its own terms. Because when Rooney Mara laughs, I want to hear Rooney Mara’s damn laugh.