Song to Song falls flat

Movie Review: Song to Song

Terrence Malick probes the nature of intimacy through a portrait of Austin’s music scene, but the existential maestro fails to find the right notes in this hollow solo

Song to Song

2/5

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Patti Smith, Val Kilmer, Iggy Pop

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Running time: 2 hrs 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: Restricted

Terrence Malick Song Austin

Song to Song: Terrence Malick’s music movie falls flat

By Katherine Monk

Oh dear. Something went wrong with Song to Song. Usually, I’m entirely seduced by Terrence Malick’s dreamy meditations on existence, his fearlessly unstructured scenes formed from extreme closeups of beautiful actors looking into the middle distance with suppressed desire.

I love throwing myself into his deep reflecting pool. His watery takes on love, relationships, disappointment and the elusive quest for the divine are enough to suspend me. I can float in the endless wonder without feeling a lack for anything.

Until now. I so wanted to fall in love with Song to Song, but it’s the first time I found myself in the midst of Malick’s oeuvre without feeling the monster of human meaning under the surface.

Turning his impressionist eye to the music scene, we meet a trio of relatively impenetrable personalities right off the bat. Rooney Mara is Faye — a truly fairylike creature, a creature of air and light, but not much else. Faye used to work as the receptionist for Cook (Michael Fassbender), a handsome music mogul with a classic desire to conquer every woman in the room — including Faye. And Faye has been conquered. In the opening salvo of voiceover, she tells us she used to need violent sex.

It’s like a stranger telling you the same thing on the bus. We barely know this woman, and already she’s telling us her deepest secret. There may be fifty shades of titillation to such a statement, but it strikes a false note in the first verse.

Things don’t improve as the narrative eventually crawls out of its shell and we realize, through the standard Malick snippets of conversation and random voiceover, that Cook is best friends with BV (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring musician and keys player lingering in the Austin clubs.

Before we know it — actually, before we know anything — BV and Faye are hitting it off and Cook is getting creepy about it.

That’s about all the plot we’re really offered. Each character eventually goes off and finds another person to couple with, but every relationship seems doomed to fail in this film that fails for the same reason: It never settles down.

Maybe that was the point of this meandering exercise that features some of the best actors in the universe staring emptily into space: It’s about the drifters and the dreamers who inhabit the music scene’s underbelly, as well as the fat cat capitalists who feed off the creative soul.

Having said all that, this movie should vibrate with an inherently romantic sentiment. Music is the ultimate emotional expression, and yet this movie feels a little tone deaf.
There is little music to speak of, and even the musicians who appear in the film must have been subject to restrictions from their own labels. We barely hear a peep from music icons Iggy Pop or Patti Smith, the latter of whom seems like the perfect Malick movie inhabitant: a pure creator who speaks, writes and sings her own truth.

Having said all that, this movie should vibrate with an inherently romantic sentiment. Music is the ultimate emotional expression, and yet this movie feels a little tone deaf.

She has a few half moments of screen presence, and the odd line: “I was in love… but my husband died.” Smith wrote a beautiful book about this feeling of loss in the National Book Award winner M Train. Somehow, seeing it reduced to a simple fragment feels like an intrusion — like Faye needing violent sex.

Intimacy is what we need here. It’s what every character is craving every single second. Yet, there is none.

Hmmmm. I just realized this could be a work of genius because it’s about the denial of intimacy — which is hugely unrewarding. Perhaps this is why Malick hits us over the head with one particular image cycle: Thresholds.

People are walking from interior spaces to exterior spaces all the time. One character exits while another one follows, or not.

There’s one moment where the theme is particularly noticeable. Cate Blanchett’s distant rich woman meets BV at a party. All the walls are glass. She splays herself against the thin panes as she flirts, but keeps moving through the different glass-walled rooms.

Everyone wants to get inside the other, live inside the other’s warm soul for a brief moment of connection and comfort. But they’re all such airy characters, they breeze through the spaces like so many familiar, almost stereotypical spectres.

Each actor seems to be playing a familiar alter ego. Fassbender tugs on his character from Shame. Blanchett reprises the scent of her character from Blue Jasmine. Mara does what she always does — whether it’s in Carol or The Social Network — she opens her giant blue eyes and makes you to swim in circles without ever getting closer.

Each actor seems to be playing a familiar alter ego.

Gosling is probably the easiest of all the actors to watch, even though he’s going back to La La Land in some scenes, because he’s approachable. We never get to know who BV really is, but we don’t know who any of these people are — even at the end of a long two hours and nine minutes.

It’s one thing to capture a cold, inexpressive world by showing us emotional cripples walking into their own glass walls, but enjoying the experience is something else.

Malick may well have made the movie he wanted, but the voyage is neither memorable nor remotely emotional as it circles aloofly around itself.

@katherinemonk

 THE EX-PRESS, April 7, 2017

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Summary

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Terrence Malick finally made a movie I didn’t like. And it has Patti Smith in it. It also has Iggy Pop, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender. Cate Blanchett even! And I still didn’t like it. Sometimes his half-conscious dreamscapes edit together and create visual poetry — compelling meditations on what it means to be alive and experience the world on an emotional, artistic, truly loving level. He does this through characters we can recognize and relate to, even from a purely abstract, emotional level. This time around, we get lost in the moss and heat of Austin, Texas as Fassbender, Gosling and Mara get tangled in a love triangle that never feels real, urgent or all that interesting. - Katherine Monk

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