Song to Song Is Out of Tune And Devoid of Substance

Here we go again…here we go again.

Yes, Terrence Malick returned to the silver screen this year with Song to Song, his fourth directorial effort in the last eight years, a stunning turnaround in terms of output considering the long gaps of time between projects in his filmography prior to 2011. Now he’s just churning these things out like a madman and while his work ethic that’s rivaling Ridley Scott or Takashi Miike is admirable, the quality of his recent efforts suggest he should maybe chillax, take a breather and come up with some kind of imagery or atmosphere he wants to exude before filming a movie instead of just tossing a bunch of major actors into a number of disparate locales and calling it a day.

Song to Song continues Malick’s trend from Knight of Cups of relying too heavily on big-name movie stars wandering around aimlessly and aggravating amounts of whispering in lieu of actual substance. Faye (Rooney Mara) is the character we follow around the most as she strives to find a purpose in life while navigating romantic troubles that predominately stem from two individuals involved in the music biz, best buds BV (Ryan Gosling) and Cook (Michael Fassbender, continuing the steady stream of lackluster projects he’s appeared in this year). Will she find purpose amidst the modern-day music scene?

Who even knows folks, all I know is that this was one helluva slog to get through. To be fair, the faint traces of humanity found here (such as the two scenes Mara’s character share with her father) ensure that this at least has more of a human touch to it than the wholly sterile Knight of Cups, but such moments are all too fleeting in Song To Song. The rowdy concerts that Song to Song sets so much of its action at are supposed to be havens for escape and finding joy in connecting with total strangers through the power of music. Leave it to Malick to make such surroundings constantly dreary and devoid of personality as any hopes of this experimental drama using such gatherings as a chance to garner so much as a faint pulse of life is left in the wind.

Instead, we’re left with repetitive sequences of Rooney Mara gazing wistfully around while she whispers monologues to the audience. For a filmmaker who seems to be in love with visuals, I don’t know why Malick can’t just let the visuals speak for themselves, too often potentially engaging imagery is undercut by monotonous voice-over work that cuts through an intended mood or atmosphere like a knife going through butter. Mara, for her part, just looks lost while Ryan Gosling seems similarly adrift and Michael Fassbender is just stuck with a lame interpretation of a greedy high-roller in the music scene.

Even the introduction of LGBT+ material into the plot, a first for a Malick film as far I’m aware, doesn’t, in the form of Faye striking up a romantic relationship with a woman, doesn’t allow Malick to explore new ideas or themes. Instead, it just feels like Malick is some teenager who’s obsessed with watching women kiss each other and that’s about all he’s going to explore in terms of non-heteronormative sexuality. This is just one of the many moments where Song to Song squanders the chance of being interesting instead of plodding. Some movies may choose stlye over substance or vice versa, but Song to Song is the newest feature film from Terrence Malick to decide to eschew both elements to thoroughly tedious results.

  • I kinda miss when Malick was more reclusive. I didn’t know who he was for The Thin Red Line, but I remember the shock when The New World was announced so soon. Now it feels like a new movies too soon, and all too similar. I don’t even remember everything he’s done lately.

  • Jake Gittes

    Wholly agree with the observation that the voiceover undercuts the visuals here – it really doesn’t add anything meaningful all too often, especially when it comes from Rooney Mara who is one of the most internal actors around and can suggest damn near anything you want her to suggest without having to convey it with words. Real mistake on Malick’s part.

    I’m not on board with the notion that this is just another failure that fails in the same way his preceding several films failed, though. The thing with Malick, and latter-day Malick in particular, is that visuals and voiceover (as well as music) are the “actual substance”, in that he uses nature, architecture, position and movement of people in the frame, etc. to convey the characters’ subjective experience of the world. Empty apartments, in which so many of his recent characters find themselves, signify unfulfilled lives; a character seemingly pointlessly wandering around = an inner state of indecision, of feeling lost and adrift. And so on. It’s a singular kind of filmmaking, and I think in Knight of Cups Malick has made a masterpiece in this style. As for why it doesn’t really work in Song to Song, the answer is probably in the combination of a) the focus is split between four different characters, which doesn’t allow for the same kind of spell KOC casts by only ever following Christian Bale’s journey; b) Austin is kind of wasted as a setting, there’s no real atmosphere to it unlike with Los Angeles in KOC and Paris and the Midwest in To the Wonder; c) Malick’s previous 2010s films were all autobiographical and each felt like an attempt to exorcise various personal demons, whereas this, as far as I can tell, is the first one in which he doesn’t draw upon his own life, and the result feels a lot less authentic and more scattered.

    It’s a good thing that Malick himself recognized that the well has run dry and promised that his next film will be (comparatively) conventional. But I still think that, on the whole, this post-Tree of Life stretch has been massively undervalued. It’s an example of a major artist genuinely experimenting with the medium on a scale almost no one can afford these days (only Lynch comes to mind, and even he had to use the Twin Peaks brand to do it), and it deserves to be taken seriously and supported rather than snickered at. And even if people don’t like them – which is perfectly fine – it kind of boggles my mind that so many actively wish Malick hadn’t made these films. As if his need to express himself is only worth anything when we like the result.

    • Aristophanes

      I don’t particularly like the post-ToL films, but I agree he’s definitely up to something more coherent than critics are giving him credit for. Virtually everyone dismisses the narration, but in StS I thought most of the lines made sense and developed clear themes. (And didn’t somebody on this website write an article or do a podcast on Malick’s extremely deliberate use of music? That seems very much intact in StS too.)

      It also seems to me the post-ToL films all dance around cosmic, more-or-less Salvation themes with a focus on how various kinds of erotic relationships point towards and fall short of certain hopes. Mara’s character in StS seemed to be covering that terrain more directly than ever. There’s an untimely, quasi-Christian humanism in these films worth thinking about.

  • Defense Against The Hark Arts

    Here we go, here we go, here we go again. Girls what’s my weakness?

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)

  • I’m feeling a definite cumulative weariness with 21st Century Mallick. If this was his first film since Thin Red Line I’d probably have found a lot of it fascinating, but as it is each successive one is mostly the same tricks and doesn’t offer enough new stuff.

    I also spent the early part of the film constantly confusing the Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman characters, which I’ll accept 50% of the blame for but think wouldn’t have been so easy in another film.