Movie Review: “Song to Song” finds Terrence Malick playing a familiar tune, but he’s out of key this time.

It’s fascinating to consider that Terrence Malick was considered, at one point, to be the most innovative visual stylist working in movies. Granted, a lot of this has to do with the scarcity of Malick’s early output: there used to be five, sometimes ten-year gaps between the director’s releases, making each one feel like a bonafide event. Of course, when your first three films are “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” — each one a masterpiece for completely different reasons — you’ve set an awfully high standard for yourself.

The release of Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in 2011 turned out to be quite the double-edged sword for his fans, and I consider myself one. On one hand, that head-spinning, heart-melting metaphysical parable is arguably Malick’s magnum opus: it finds the perfect point of union between his more poetic, introspective tendencies and his tendency to grapple with outsized forces beyond most filmmaker’s understanding. The movie, more autobiographical than almost all of Malick’s work, also reckons with some of the biggest themes that a work of fiction can theoretically take on. It was an sprawling, exhausting art film awash in staggering visual flourishes, and while the film also boasted affecting and naturalistic performances from lead actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, I would argue that the finished product is more “of a piece” than any other film Malick’s ever made.

“The Tree of Life” turned out to be not only a high watermark for the director, but also the beginning of a new, controversial chapter in his career. This was a chapter that saw a considerable surge in productivity, with the director cranking out a movie basically every year to every othery ear. It was also a chapter that saw a noticeable dip in overall quality control. While Malick’s last two efforts, “To The Wonder” and “Knight of Cups,” are visually exquisite audio-visual mélanges that take the director’s penchant for spiritual navel-gazing to its logical point of conclusion, each film is also a faint, almost mocking whisper of Malick’s former greatness. Comparing these unformed pictures to the likes of “Days of Heaven” or “The Thin Red Line” seems… well, I suppose there’s no other word for it, unfair.

The thing is, it shouldn’t be. Theoretically, we should judge each new Terrence Malick film against the basis of his most definitive work. And yet I fear what was once one of the most idiosyncratic and singular creative fingerprints of our time has finally been smudged into something resembling self-parody. You know what I mean: the endless kaleidoscopic shots of the natural world, the turgid, whispered voiceover that sounds like it was penned by an emotionally wounded 13-year old. Of course, it’s become fashionable in cineaste circles lately to reign disdain on Malick, but yeesh, the guy does not make it easy to like his movies these days. You may find this assessment of the great director’s work reductive, or even unfair. I’m okay with that. What I really want to know, reader, is have you sat through Malick’s latest film, the Austin-set “love story” that is “Song to Song”?

I’ve heard some critics, including Matt Zoller Seitz, who is one of my heroes, jump through mental hoops of their own devising to defend Malick’s recent career pivot. A common argument seems to be that the polarizing nature of the director’s recent output automatically renders the work itself worthy of serious consideration. I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on this assessment. Of course having an authorial style is fantastic. Shit, almost all great directors have one. This does not, however, excuse you from the very fundamental notion of telling a story. Even directors who’ve been accused of becoming pickled in the cinematic worlds they create (Wes Anderson immediately comes to mind, as does goth auteur Tim Burton) seem capable of telling narratives that satisfy on some basic level, even when their movies can occasionally feel constricted by the whims of their creator’s considerable imaginations.

I know what some of you are going to say: Malick has never told an A-to-B story, with the possible exception of “Badlands”. Why should he start now? And when has anyone ever gone to a Terrence Malick movie for “story” anyway? We continue to watch Malick’s work because his work is often a joy to behold: we yearn to be swept up in the intoxicating whirlpools of sound, image and voiceover that these films create when they truly work.

However, with “Song to Song,” even the director’s most loyal supporters seem incapable of justifying the movie’s existence. The film is two or so hours of hypnotic nothingness: a fragmented tone poem that’s so assured in its basic presentation that it might actually fool you into thinking that the director actually has something on his mind. After spending two (but what felt like four) hours in this hazy Southern miasma of lust and apathy, I’m not sure if he does.

This is, sadly, Malick’s weakest movie to date, including his uneven but striking period epic “The New World” and the Ben Affleck-starring heartland weepie “To The Wonder,” which I have previously written about in my “Look Back” column. Both “Song to Song” and “To The Wonder” are romances, which I suspect is not a coincidence. Now, one could make the argument that “Badlands” — the director’s brutal debut, and the closest thing he’s ever made to a genre movie — is also technically a romance, albeit a doomed one. What’s pretty much beyond dispute, though, is that “Badlands” remains one of the director’s finest accomplishments. While it’s possible that “Song to Song” may grow in the mind in the weeks to come, I very much doubt that the director’s newest film will occupy this same space in the pantheon.

It’s not that romance doesn’t interest Malick anymore. It’s just that I’m not sure he’s so keen on people lately… and of course, to tell a great love story, you need, well, people. The “people” in “Song to Song” are attractive cyphers played by movie stars who are being asked to do very little, beyond gazing at sunsets and play-wrestling on silk sheets and the like. They say utterly insane things like “Save me from my black heart” and “I don’t like to look at the birds in the sky because I miss you”. All of this nonsense could be forgiven if the movie was coherent, or if it made sense by Malick’s already-nebulous standards. But critics who kid themselves into thinking that “Song to Song” has merit simply because it’s another example of impeccable style from a director who undeniably sees the world differently from the rest of us are only fooling themselves. What we have here is Malick’s typically marvelous technique, executed in service of a story that might not even exist. Call it drivel in the guise of divinity.

Malick has never really bothered with expository scenes where his characters state their names, explicate on who they are, or what they do for a living, etc. As such, I had to turn to IMDB to learn the character’s names in “Song to Song,” as I was occasionally convinced that I was watching some kind of psychedelic, shapeless documentary about beautiful celebrities moping around the fringes of the D.I.Y. music scene in Austin, Texas. Ryan Gosling plays the movie’s lead, I guess: a doe-eyed musician and wanderer inexplicably named BV (has anyone, in the history of anything, ever, actually been named BV?). BV is in love with a girl, the luminous Faye. Faye is played by Rooney Mara, who still has one of the most lovely and expressive faces of any actress working in music today, and manages to save the role itself from practically evaporating off the screen. To say there’s not much on the page for the character would be an understatement, though I’m not even sure if the pages in question actually exist.

Faye is kinda-sorta mixed up with a malevolent, fabulously wealthy music producer named Cook (Michael Fassbender), who seems to share an affinity for luxury menswear and nubile female playthings with Christian Bale’s tormented scribe from “Knight of Cups”. Adding to this mess of ardor and complications is a diner waitress named Rhonda, played in an unconvincing note of “aw-shucks” small-town earnestness by Natalie Portman. I would argue that this last error is not technically Ms. Portman’s fault. You know how you sometimes hear complaints that Brad Pitt’s movie-star dynamism often renders him incapable of playing average men? I’d say the same is true for Ms. Portman. For an actor to succeed in a role like this, they need to strip themselves of any semblance of elegance and, for better or worse, Ms. Portman exudes elegance without having to say so much as a word of dialogue. An earthier performer might have been able to capture the turmoil of this working-class woman (Michelle Williams comes to mind), and, oh, I don’t know, maybe if the part had been developed past the point of simply being Michael Fassbender’s sex slave. The whiff of misogony that I detected in “Knight of Cups” blossoms into something genuinely ugly in “Song to Song’s” second half, in which the writhing, nude female bodies occasionally outnumber the pirouetting shots of people looking, spellbound, into puddles of water.

As far as story goes… well, as Porky Pig once said, “that’s all, folks”. BV and Faye seem to share a love that is childlike in its innocence, and Gosling and Mara convey what the movie’s script calls the sense of “rolling and tumbling” of first love in a way that is genuinely moving. You feel terrible for Mara, who struggles against the inanity of her underwritten character’s conception, while Gosling tends to fall back on his Cute Gosling routine one too many times. In his defense, he looks like he might just not quite know what to do, and going off what I’ve heard about how things are on Malick’s sets, I can’t say I blame the guy.

Strangely enough, “Song to Song” occasionally comes to life when the focus shifts towards the self-serving and diabolical Cook. The character’s basic composite (oversexed, handsome mover and shaker suffering from a serious case of soul-rot) was clichéd ten years ago, but Fassbender probably gets the closest of any of the actors to giving a performance that cuts through Malick’s affected directorial tics. The devilish glow in the Irish actor’s smile has rarely seemed so sinister, and even the moments where Cook is simply waiting stageside, plotting his next miniature takeover, feel filled with a foreboding that the movie is never focused enough to engage with meaningfully.

To the movie’s immense detriment, Malick seems intent on burying his actors beneath, you guessed it, an avalanche of voiceover that is so ponderous and up its own ass that it sometimes seems like an unintentional commentary on the director’s own bad habits. Of course, Malick’s pictorial eye, aided by the wrenching and sensuous cinematography of the great Emmanuel Lubezki, could still be argued to be without parallel. And yet, the images that Malick settles upon in “Song to Song” are entrancing, but entirely disconnected from anything we might be able to latch on to as an audience member. They exist on screen, but they can’t find the power to move us. The resulting film assembles scraps of admittedly stunning visual poetry, all in search of a reason to exist.

The movie becomes so wrapped up in the cloistered love triangle of BV, Cook and Faye (sorry, love quadrant if you count Portman’s diner waitress) that it can be easy to forget that “Song to Song” is ostensibly a movie that uses the Texas rock music community as its backdrop. And occasionally, famous musicians wander through Malick’s frame, adding to the rambling, vaguely ocmmunal vibe of the whole enterprise. Iggy Pop shows up, the camera lingering lovingly on his leathery, shirtless frame as he exudes more natural energy into the picture than many of the movie’s main characters (for more of Pop’s indelible energy, check out the terrific Jim Jarmusch-directed Stooges documentary “Gimme Danger”). Patti Smith also appears here, waxing nostalgic about her former husbands and the highs and lows of her music career. Other notable faces pop up in a more transitory capacity, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. There’s a bizarre, curiously funny aside where we see Val Kilmer — looking like if Jim Morrison from Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” had fallen on some truly hard times — angrily berating concertgoers and chainsawing an amplifier in half. The fact that this eye-catching aside is one of the more memorable moments in “Song to Song” ends up telling you a lot about the quality of the film as a whole.

There are moments, of course, that will remind viewers why even those of us who have become disillusioned with Malick still return to his films time and time again. A suspended aerial sequence where our characters float in a luxury plane in zero gravity is eerily dreamlike, as is a third-act segue where Gosling’s character, in a curious, but somewhat perplexing turn, ditches the crowded Austin rock scene for a simple country life where he tends to his sick father and works as a hired hand on an oil rig. These scenes are intoxicating when you don’t stop to think about them, and also because Malick seems to be deliberately recycling some of the sun-drenched Middle American iconography from both “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands”. Then you stop and wonder why this handsome, presumably affluent musician would just drop everything he’s doing in his life to start working on an oil rig and you come crashing down to earth again.

Of course, neither of these plot points are satisfactorily resolved: why would they be? While it’s entirely possible that I’m watching “Song to Song” the wrong way, is it too much to ask for the film to be engaging as more than just an exercise in Malick’s by-now repetitive style? I’m not denying the scope of the director’s incalculable genius and the fluidity of his directorial vision. In the case of “Song to Song,” I am genuinely questioning why he made the movie in the first place.

Malick’s next picture is, interestingly, another foray into period filmmaking after “The New World”. It’s called “Radegund” and it’s the story of Frans Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector who was put to death in the dire years of World War II. The film is said to be a more conceptually focused, scaled-down return to Malick’s roots: I’ve even heard rumors that the film has a (gasp) fully-developed script. Though “Song to Song” left me weary and disappointed, I must say that I look forward to Malick’s next film — if for no other reason than it may signal a return to a more disciplined kind of artistry. On the basis of “Song to Song,” I would say Malick has taken the limits of this particular style about as far as they can go, and then some. My best friend, when we got out of the movie, described what we’d just seen as “the cinematic equivalent of a screensaver”. I’ve tried, and I still can’t think of a better description. Grade: C-.

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