Mark Reviews Movies

Song to Song


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Bérénice Marlohe, Patti Smith, Val Kilmer

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality, nudity, drug use and language)

Running Time: 2:09

Release Date: 3/17/17 (limited); 3/24/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 23, 2017

Song to Song answers the question that no one even thought to ask: What if Terrence Malick made a movie in which the only thing that matters is the plot? Malick, one of the great film artists (No matter how many times one repeats this mantra after seeing this movie, it doesn't help to make this unfortunate misstep any better), has always possessed little need for plot. His work is about searching for the concerns between the lines of what happens in a story.

His films are about the search for motive within the characters and the universe they inhabit—about seeing the world as it is and openly wondering if there's some driving force behind it. The driving force behind this movie is a series of semi-interconnected romances, in which a handful of characters fall in love—or something else that they misconstrue as love—and hop between each other. This time around, the narration—a vital Malick staple that allows his characters to think and question without a barrier—contains such pointed observations as, "We broke up."

What happened here? One can see Malick and his cast improvising on the fly. There are violently sudden cuts and long pauses between lines of dialogue, in which we can fill in the blanks of lines or ideas that are either being fed by the director or grasped at by the performers (At one point, two characters essentially teleport hundreds of feet in the seconds between a question and its answer). Certain scenes play like outtakes, complete with actors looking directly at the camera with perplexed faces.

Nobody seems quite certain what they're doing, why they're doing it, or how any of this means anything. Sadly, Malick seems the least certain of the bunch.

At first, there's a love triangle between Faye (Rooney Mara), BV (Ryan Gosling), and Cook (Michael Fassbender). Faye and Cook are in a purely sex-based relationship. He's a big-time music producer in Austin, Texas, and she thinks he can help her with her career as a musician (even though, every time we see her with a guitar in her hands, she still seems to be learning how to play the instrument).

BV is an aspiring songwriter who also thinks Cook can help his career. He and Faye meet at a party, and the two start dating shortly after. BV tells Faye that she can lie to him and then spends the rest of their relationship upset that she might be lying to him. Meanwhile, Cook meets Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress, and woos her into marriage. Their relationship becomes a means for Cook to have multiple threesomes with prostitutes.

The central theme, one supposes, is betrayal. It's simple at first. Faye is drawn to both BV and Cook for different reasons. Faye, we learn from her opening voiceover, enjoys sex and especially the pain it can bring, since she feels nothing otherwise. Cook provides that, and BV, who has some parental issues (an overbearing mother and an absentee father), is, apparently, the more stable of the two. He has some jealousy issues, though, and one again supposes that the later introduction of Amanda (Cate Blanchett), an older woman who vaguely looks like his mother, is his way of dealing with them.

A lot of supposing is necessary. The characters are ciphers, with the actors doing some shtick on camera (Gosling mugs, Mara looks sad, and Fassbender scowls) while the narration either explains the progression of the plot or offers some broad psychoanalysis—purely as a way of rationalizing the story.

We're used to this methodology from Malick—of gestural acting complementing the voiceover. It's all so hollow here, though. Malick touches upon ideas of a morality play, with Cook serving as a Lucifer-like figure (There's a montage in the middle of the movie that suggests he either is or believes himself to be the Devil incarnate) and the movie's big takeaway offering a Puritanical view of sex (The ending involves a character literally washing Faye clean as she voices regret about abusing the "gift" of sex). Despite all of this, religion is mostly absent from the story, save for BV visiting a church in Mexico and Rhonda wondering about an unseen presence in one voiceover—before she's offered as a sort of sacrificial lamb for Cook's trangressions.

Of positive note, the movie is beautiful (Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continues to play with light and lenses in his fifth collaboration with Malick). Patti Smith, playing herself, offers a sense of sincerity to the movie's posturing, and Val Kilmer makes an all-too-brief appearance as a band's chainsaw-wielding front man. The momentary diversions within Song to Song are exponentially more intriguing than the meat of the story.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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