After making “Days of Heaven” in 1978, director Terrence Malick took a two-decade break from cinema, retreating to Austin, Texas, where his latest movie is set (bits of “The Tree of Life” also filmed there). During his absence, Malick was sorely missed: Here was a master filmmaker who had created one of the most visually stunning movies of all time, only to disappear, J.D. Salinger-esque, from the medium upon which he had so profoundly left his imprint. And then, practically out of the blue, Malick resurfaced with “The Thin Red Line,” after which, the man who’d been silent so long could scarcely shut up, unleashing a creative torrent that reaches its crescendo with “Song to Song.”
It pains me to say it, but Malick might want to consider another lengthy hiatus. Rushed into production mere months after his nearly-self-parodic, Hollywood-set “Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song” finds the maestro in broken-record mode, rehashing more or less the same themes against the backdrop of the Austin music scene — merely the latest borderline-awful Malick movie that risks to undermine the genius and mystery of his best work. “Song to Song” presents a sprawling yet shallow love story in which Rooney Mara finds herself caught between two men, one a high-powered producer played by Michael Fassbender, the other his latest musical discovery, a singer-songwriter who looks like a slightly younger version of “La La Land’s” Ryan Gosling (which he is, in fact, since the adorable ex-Mouseketeer made Malick’s movie first, back in late 2012). Complicating the triangle are three additional roles for actresses capable of so much more: Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe (“Skyfall”).
Like Gosling, Mara also plays a young songwriter, although the only way you’d know that is to read the press notes. In the elliptical movie itself, which is so scrambled that the only continuity is DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s punch-drunk wide-angle photography, she’s more of an opportunistic hanger-on, a house-sitter and dog-walker whose idea of “paying her dues” is to sleep with the most powerful man she can find — in this case, Fassbender’s character (whose name, revealed in the end credits, is Cook).
And then one day, at one of Cook’s wild parties — which are more or less interchangeable with the Hollywood shindigs seen in “Knight of Cups” — Faye meets BV, and they fall in love. Love, as we know from previous Malick movies, is a state of emotional ticklishness, in which beautiful actors flash spontaneous smiles while rolling in the grass, or pressing themselves against windows, or tickling each other while driving, and it can strike whether the car in question is an old beater or a sparking red Ferrari. Malickian love makes grown people behave like children, which is the unspoken goal of nearly all of his films: to reach that “state of grace” where one forgets the cruel complexity of the adult world, regressing to a sort of childish naïveté.
For anyone who has been following Malick’s career (and this film could prove tortuous for those who don’t fall into that camp), it’s a by-now-familiar shtick: We never once hear this stunningly beautiful couple discuss something of substance or common interest — not even music — but know by their awkwardly pantomimed grins that they are at the heights of happiness.
Oh, would that Faye and BV could go on like this forever, buying antique umbrellas and playing airplane in bed, but there is a rather massive complication: Faye never broke things off with Cook, and is probably too worried about how that might affect her still-non-existent music career to do so. “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” Faye says early on via voiceover (a motif in all of Malick’s films, as seemingly free-associative fragments of thought spackle the loose storyline).
And yet, that line betrays a maturity and degree of perspective that Mara never really depicts on screen, despite giving so much of herself to the performance. This epiphany belongs not to the character so much as it does to the director, who disapproves of the almost nihilistic abandon with which Faye (and her contemporaries) mistake a lack of restrictions in their relationships as freedom. In the first line spoken in the film, Faye confides, “I went through a period where sex had to be violent.” That, too, comes from a place more profound than the character herself, while promising a far more provocative film than the one that follows.
The precise chronology of events proves virtually impossible to untangle, given the film’s aggressively nonlinear structure — heightened by how frequently Mara’s character changes hairstyles, from pageboy to ponytail, severe-looking redhead to short blonde wig. Add to that the way characters flit between multiple homes, forcing us to reorient ourselves every time the film jump-cuts from, say, Cook’s sprawling Hill Country compound outside Austin to the posh flat he keeps in a downtown skyscraper (to say nothing of the hotel rooms rented, planes chartered, and Mexican vacations indulged), and the film starts to feel like a daunting Chinese brain-teaser.
No matter how confusing, the result represents a virtuoso four-year feat for the film’s three credited editors (and backup team of five), who have created a sense of crystalline complexity from what must surely have been a straightforward and rather slender storyline — to the extent that “Song to Song” ultimately feels like a remix of itself. This is decidedly not the way human thought or memory actually functions, but rather a format unique to Malick, who has drifted daringly far from conventional storytelling traditions, even in this, his most narrative feature since “Days of Heaven.”
Spare the blender-inflicted damage, and the plot is actually quite simple: While young, ambitious, and insecure, Faye hooks up with Cook, hoping it might benefit her career (which it didn’t). Then she meets Cook’s protégé, BV, and their connection teaches her what love can be, though she’s incapable of breaking things off with his boss. Meanwhile, Cook seduces a waitress (Portman, beautiful as ever in churchy, Texas cheerleader mode), corrupting her with his kinky sexual appetite. Eventually, BV realizes Faye’s duplicity, and the couple split up. Faye meets a sexy Parisian (Marlohe) and discovers her Sapphic side, while BV warms to a recently heart-scarred Brit (Blanchett). Will Mara and Gosling get back together? Only God forgives.
Of the characters beyond the initial love triangle in Malick’s too-white ensemble, Portman has the biggest part, and also the most powerful, owing not only to her character’s fate, but also the actress’s ability to take a slender, nearly dialogue-free role and make it feel fully rounded. Holly Hunter appears blink-and-you-miss-it briefly as Portman’s mother, though the cameos that will surely interest audiences most are those of the musicians Malick enlisted to lend the film its music-scene authenticity: Iggy Pop, Flea, Lykke Li, and Patti Smith, whose candid interactions with Faye lend the film its soul (a word Faye tosses about easily, but otherwise seems to lack). There’s even a very funny bit with Val Kilmer, playing a rebellious old rocker who takes a chainsaw to his speakers mid-set (why not make a movie about him?).
While it’s amusing to play “spot the musician” as the plot ping-pongs back and forth along its own timeline, more impressive than the guest appearances are the scenes shot on and backstage at actual Austin music festivals: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Festival, and Fun Fun Fun Fest. The sheer logistics involved in shooting amid real concerts boggles the mind, while proving that this ambitious-intentioned project is far more than a mere finger-painting exercise. If anything, this is his massive Hieronymus Bosch canvas, in which both Malick and his cast fearlessly reveal grotesque facets of themselves on screen, while real music — from a live Patti Smith performance to a hymn-like Handel aria, plus a decidedly sub-“La La Land” number from Gosling — keep this sprawling, overlong concert tripping from one song to the next.
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