Song To Song
There are some directors whose opening scenes provide a sense of comfort and security, drawing you into a recognisable style that lets you know you are in safe hands. You know what to expect because they know where they’re heading. The same used to be said of Terrence Malick before hitting rocky ground over the past five years. The switch to his current, freeform style is, of course, instantly recognisable, but far more likely to induce a series of exasperated sighs the moment we are asked to listen to another A-list actor whisper through their ponderous inner monologue.
Despite story becoming a long lost friend of Malick, we have still seen the visionary director release classics like The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, as he searches for ever more larger themes within his films. Song to Song sees him continuing – and hopefully now sealing – an airy, meandering trilogy centred on the dull and the beautiful. Despite having a penchant for wanting to “cut to birds” (as Christopher Plummer commented in the aftermath of 2005’s The New World), he is still a director actors queue up to work with, this time enlisting Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter and a number of older rock stars to populate this world . And that's without mentioning the names of Christian Bale, Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes, who were all cut from the final edit.
The music industry serves as the setting for his latest effort, although the actual 'story' has very little to with the ins-and-outs of the music world. Producer Cook (Fassbender), has been sleeping with budding musician Faye (Mara) for some time and their relationship continues even after she begins a relationship with songwriter BV (Gosling). Using Malick’s free-associative approach, the story slowly expands once Cook meets waitress Rhonda (Portman) which quickly leads to marriage. BV discovers the truth about Faye’s indiscretions and hooks up with Amanda (Blanchett) while Faye drifts into a relationship with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe).
Described in this way, the story feels compact and eventful, but seen through the eyes of modern day Malick, it becomes a painful experience to sit through. The poetical tone is never satisfactory, with scene after scene failing to connect with the spiritual soul it so desperately seeks out. Malick is obsessed with attempting to reach into a lyrical ether he believes exists within the inner lives of these characters. The problem being that all anyone else can see is a parade of empty shells. There are only so many times you can watch these people tediously drift in and out of shot while churning out dialogue such as “I don’t like to see the birds in the sky because I miss you,” without your eyes becoming permanently lodged under the roof of your eyelids.
The actors themselves seem utterly lost as they float across a sun-lit Austin muttering inane strands of improvised dialogue. Florence Welch, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, John Lydon, Flea and Anthony Kiedis all make brief appearances as part of the industry backdrop (shot at the SXSW festival) and their meaningless presence only serves to highlight how self-indulgent and badly-judged Malick’s eye has become. Somewhere in California, Christian Bale is sitting back wiping his brow, with a broad grin of relief spread across his face.