Terrence Malick has never been accused of being too accessible. Known for valuing cinematography and broad philosophical tenets over plot and characters, Malick doesn’t shy away from being “artsy” with his films. Song to Song is in much the same vein, full of jumpy but beautiful scenes and morose, whispered voice overs. The plot feels more coherent here than in his 2011 film, Tree of Life, but in this case that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Filmed in 2012 and set in the Austin, Texas music scene, Song to Song follows Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician who’s sleeping with big shot producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), but also begins dating the charming up-and-coming performer named BV (Ryan Gosling). It’s a classic love triangle all the more complicated by the fact that BV is working with Cook to launch his career. The film also features Natalie Portman as the innocent waitress Rhonda seduced by the villainous Cook and Cate Blanchett as a wealthy woman who serves as a rebound for BV.
The camera is frenetic throughout the whole film, rarely settling on any one frame before moving on to the next one. Fish eye shots are peppered throughout, though most heavily featured during crowd shots at music festivals around Austin. It even appears that some shots may have been filmed on a phone due to a drop in quality. It’s all very grand and artistic but mostly feels pretentious. The same could be said for the film’s lack of dialogue and three main characters. In trying to capture that artistic lifestyle, a potent mix of uncertainty, creativity, and fearlessness, Malick never actually achieves a connection with his audience. Left to wonder what in the world is going on, he leaves the audience to fill in the blanks but doesn’t provide enough incentive to actually engage with the film.
As a transplant Austinite (aka most Austinites these days), I can admit bias towards seeing my city on the big screen. Before the screening at the Paramount Theatre, Ryan Gosling joked that he was happy to be there, if only because the Paramount was the one place they hadn’t filmed in. As you watch the film for yourself, you see that he wasn’t really joking. They seemed to hit every block in Central Austin. Still, oftentimes it felt like watching a relic of the past. The Austin of 2012 looks vastly different five years later. Bars and restaurants where Faye and BV dine have gone out of business. The skyline in the film is missing a few gigantic condo buildings. And any film about hipster musicians not filming in the hipster haven East Sixth (a stretch of bars directly east of the I-35 highway) feels inauthentic. In taking so long to release the film, it ends up dating it to the point of separation, a separation that carries over to the characters.
I don’t know how many musician hipsters you’ve known, but I know I want to punch each and every person in this film. Even though they’re supposedly musicians, they’re all extremely light on performances or any actual musical work. Sure, they talk some about “making albums” and “playing gigs”, but scenes to back that up are few and far between. If you’ve never been to Austin, you’d think all our musicians do is party at expensive houses in West Austin (the rich part of town) and stay in swanky, empty condos downtown. They try to explain this away by saying that Faye is a professional house sitter, but really you know Malick just knows a bunch of rich Austinites that were willing to open their enormous homes for filming. That’s to say nothing of the hyper-sexualized women in the film who are often shot at stomach level (we get it Malick, you have a thing for belly buttons) and seemingly only able to process emotions while standing in front of a window and hiding behind gauzy curtains. The eyes could not roll back far enough into my head.
With three thoroughly unlikeable leads and a plot that never hooks you, Song to Song is a typical Malick film that goes for broad strokes but leaves you bored and underwhelmed. Perhaps I’m missing the grand point, but any film that is this boring and confusing need not be bothered with.