The music scene in Austin, Texas, is alive with talent and energy – and you hope that energy would inspire Terrence Malick, who lives there, to bust out of the filmmaking funk of his recent work (Knight of Cups, To the Wonder). No such luck. Despite a few glimpses of Iggy Pop, Flea, Lykke Li and Big Freedia in live performance, Song to Song has no music in its DNA, not to mention its soul. Instead, Malick indulges in his usual visual tropes, having characters wander around aimlessly while muttering their mock-profound thoughts in voiceover. Nope.
As usual, the images captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are gorgeous – but visuals are no substitute for narrative momentum, which is non-existent. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Faye (Rooney Mara), an unchanging expression in search of a character. Faye may be a musician though we don’t see her practicing her art. She seems attracted to BV (Ryan Gosling), a singer-songwriter with the potential to make it in La La Land, if not Texas. “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” says Faye. But she screws up their relationship by taking time out for bouts of violent sex with Cook (Michael Fassbender), a volatile manager with the power to boost her career. As Faye tells us, “I was desperate to feel something real.” Uh-huh. Malick shoots Mara’s bare midriff as if it were a work of art worth a thesis-length study. The men in her life worship at it like the Holy Grail; even a young Parisian woman (Skyfall‘s Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe) drops by to pay her erotic respects. Fassbender and Gosling are left to goose the romantic triangle to life. It’s not happening.
Even Malick seems to lose interest, indicated by the introduction of new characters. Cook develops a thing for a local waitress (Natalie Portman) with a swinging attitude to match her Texas twang. She has a blast when he takes her out to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a music event; it’s just too bad that he mistakes her high spirits for willingness to join him in orgies with hookers. Portman is the film’s live-wire, but the director quickly dispenses with her, as well as her mother played by Holly Hunter. Christian Bale shot scenes as well, but his work made the cutting-room floor – some actors have all the luck. Not so Cate Blanchett, who shows up as a new love for BV, reducing this soaring comet of an actress to meandering around barefoot while musing about her tragic past.
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All this drags on for 130 minutes – a big improvement from the first cut, which reportedly came in at eight hours. Malick again contrasts the beauty of nature against the skyscrapers and cold interiors where he strands his characters. It’s a relief when Val Kilmer shows up as a rocker who goes to war against his speakers with a chainsaw. (At least that noise seemed genuine.) What a bummer that the filmmaker gives us a backstage VIP pass at Austin’s outdoor music fests and then refuses to let us watch anyone perform. The great Patti Smith is mostly reduced to doing dialogue scenes with the hapless Faye, who announces (in Mara’s trademark deadpan) “that any experience is better than no experience.” Not this time, honey. This movie hits all the wrong notes.