Synopsis – Two intersecting love triangles. Obsession and betrayal set against the music scene in Austin, Texas.
My Take – Once upon a time, the release of a film from Oscar nominated filmmaker Terrence Malick would be considered an event. Each of his films promised a unique cinematic take on the human spirit, as a result, audiences and critics waited ages, sometimes as long as twenty years, for another cinematic masterpiece from the reclusive filmmaker. However, it seems like since the release of the successful The Tree of Life, the narrative weight and the philosophical catharsis that defined Malick’s films have been replaced with pretention and self-importance. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a hater, in face I do consider some of his films like The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life as masterpieces, and yes, I am all about experimental cinema, but when you realize that this is the deepest sort of “experimental” project that Hollywood can put out, especially made by a revered auteur that film stars almost pay to work with, I see absolutely no reason why any human being would want to waste their time watching such plot-less, character-less, emotion-less piece of absolute garbage. Filmed back in 2012 immediately after Knight of Cups (which itself released last year) completed production, this 129-minute long film stayed in post-production for almost five years and went through at least eight editors to turn it into something remotely coherent (reportedly, the first cut was 8 hours long). Unfortunately, like Knight of Cups this film too like, feels like a parody of Malick‘s previous works with a familiar template – the extensive, mumbling voice-over narration by all the main characters, the stunning imagery of nature and high-end real estate, and gorgeous people literally walking in circles and acting either sweet or crazy with one another. Malick also engages in a ploy of hiring some of the hottest (and best-looking) film stars in current Hollywood to ensure no matter where the proceedings go the audience should remain compelled to look at them for hours, but here, not even these great stars can masquerade the emptiness of a film, what is intended to be a dramatic and thought-provoking piece of ‘cinematic art’. If director Malick’s Knight of Cups and vast stretches of To the Wonder felt like outtakes from beauty commercials, this film will feel like a long outtake cut from longer outtakes, as we witness nothing but incoherent muddle of falling leaves and cameos as well as track shots with no particular place to go.
Set at the Austin music scene, the story follows Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician; BV (Ryan Gosling), a songwriter whose somewhere in the beginning of his own musical career; and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a soul-sucking sex-addict record producer, who together, form a redundant love triangle. They dance like birds, engage in nonsexual wrestling matches, and draw on each other with lipstick. Although at times there are enough other parties involved like Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a Texas waitress who Cook seduces and marries; Amanda (Cate Blanchett), as a wealthy, vaguely outlined woman with whom BV becomes secretly involved & Lykke (Lykke Li), as yet another musician and one of BV’s old flames. For its complete run time, they just kind of float through the film without any purpose or story, or tension, or emotion, and give you no reason to care about what any of these characters do. The specifics of this love triangle aren’t clear right away, to the audience or possibly even to the people on screen. B.V. seems to know Cook through Faye, and early on learns that Faye has known Cook since she served as an administrative assistant at his company, though whether that’s a label, production house, or something else is never explained. When the three of them take a trip to Mexico, it’s B.V. and Cook who appear most flirtatious, dancing and play-fighting; put together, the three of them resemble a group of slightly confused but often ecstatic teenagers. Like his previous film “Knight of Cups“, this film too essentially feels like an abstract about relationships, with not much dialogue but plenty of voice-over thoughts & despite the non-stop narration, it’s still a confusing mess of a film. Without a basic understanding of who are characters are and what they like about each other or what their personalities are like it’s hard to invest in a small part of yourself into the story. Plus, it’s hard to avoid noticing that for hardly a quarter of the time are the characters doing anything that I would consider “normal” human behavior. Not one natural exchange, not one human emotion that wasn’t overridden by self-proclaiming, melodramatic, bourgeois, in-your face filmmaking. It is trying to explore big ideas like trust and betrayal, obsession and connection, and past vs present, but there have simply been far too many films that have already explored these concepts in much better, easily interpreted and more enjoyable to watch ways. Majority of the film is spent with two characters walking in different directions running their hands along poles or walls, and the other half they are doing inappropriate public displays of affection. There comes a moment in this poor cinematic venture when Michael Fassbender’s character, begins hopping and skipping about like a zoo animal, it’s a worrying spectacle which is sure to leave anyone watching this to ponder whether he is faking it to get out of this dreadful film, or if the direness of the project around him has brought about a genuinely psychotic episode. Also, the setting changes almost every shot and there is never any explanation as to why or any logical explanation given as to why they are so alone in these public environments.
I thought for a second he was pulling another artistic gimmick like “they are in their own world” or something like that, but that reading can’t be justified because there is once in a while a few other people around. I get it, director Malick has never been a traditionally narrative filmmaker, but even as a tone poem, the film never comes together or reaches the profound cosmic catharsis it promises. Even at its most confusing, The New World is a visual poem about man’s relationship with nature, about the spirit’s journey toward beatific understanding. There is a forward momentum and a natural progression to the images that adds up to a measured, transcendent experience. Throughout this film, this momentum is absent. There is no emotional or philosophical through-line to carry the audience. A poem may not need a narrative, but it does need a structure. This film is just a parade of music and film celebrities. Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett pop in as love interests for our male leads, but somehow their angle feels forced & unnecessary. We also have Val Kilmer here who literally has nothing to do. Director Malick‘s technique of splicing together seemingly random footage overlaid with barely audible interior monologue has by now become formulaic, and he seems incapable, unwilling, or afraid to deliver a sustained scene in which characters actually exchange meaningful dialogue. And speaking of characters, one after another is introduced for no apparent reason, as if quantity could make up for the fact that none of them are developed, and their utter shallowness foreshortens any depths the film might be trying to plumb. Finally, the film went on so long that I left feeling too exasperated and exhausted to hold on to the shreds of visual beauty that it offered. The Texas music scene was a complete gimmick and had absolutely nothing to do with the storyline or characters in any way. It was just used as a way to create some rhythm to the editing of what would have otherwise been a film entirely devoted to absurd prancing around, birdlike mating rituals, touching each other sensually, and then having a glow-stick party just to transition smoothly to another pointless, indulgent scene that doesn’t develop anything new. The film’s cinematography is similarly uninspired. when compared with the stunning visuals of Tree of Life or The New World. This is strange considering Malick’s choice of cinematographer has not changed, as Lubezki has been with Malick since The New World, with its strikingly still, richly green tableaux of early America. It also seemed like director Malick left his resourceful cast to construct their own characters and conflict without an endgame in mind. Voiceovers, contributed by the four major characters, are dialed in to impose some sort of linear narrative of Malick’s erratically-edited daisy chain of half-scenes. The cast however, as expected are quite likable despite some questionable choices made by their characters. Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender & Natalie Portman have proved over the years the immense talent they possess, and continue to display it here as well. Apparently Christian Bale, Haley Bennett & Benicio del Toro were cut out of the film. You’re going to walk out of this film thinking it’s either a masterpiece, or a disaster, there’s no middle ground! This is true for most of director Terrence Malick’s post-hiatus films. The general opinion on The Tree of Life was also quite similar, while most praised it, some called it pretentious trash, which of course I don’t agree with, however for this film, the case is different. On the whole, ‘Song to Song’ is a self-indulgent film, which despite visual splendor, still feels overly long, bloated & disconnected.
Directed – Terrence Malick
Rated – R
Run Time – 129 minutes