Song to Song takes on quite a lot, trying to set love triangles in the middle of an Austin, Texas music scene. It succeeds mostly as a visual exploration, and Terrence Malick devotes 145 minutes to skimming many surfaces, rounding out his trilogy with Knight of Cups and To the Wonder. As long as you don’t take everything too seriously, Song to Song can actually be moving at times because of an ever-changing soundtrack that’s fluid and hard-to-grasp.
What’s frustrating, though, is how impersonal and pseudo-deep the characters become in Malick’s carefully edited landscape. Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, and Michael Fassbender are stuck in experimental mode, with the power of what they can do as actors left to voiceovers and facial expressions. I think love triangles are especially difficult to get right on screen, regardless of the director. Song to Song makes it even harder, because the minute something revealing might happen from a line like, “Did you sleep with him?” it dissolves into yet another shot of sun-drenched tide washing up on a sandy beach. From there, it’s tempting to try to piece together what every shot means, but it’s a constant battle with the distant and elusive. Malick’s choices don’t hint at any particular feeling or overly sentimental point of view, which is actually a good thing.
Time is fleeting, memories fade, people disappear and the natural world remains – these themes are a good fit for a film that doesn’t rely on a ton of dialogue and narrative clichés. For over two hours, though, that’s another story. The stilted love triangle doesn’t really work paired with an alt music scene that’s largely models and parties, but maybe that’s the point. Otherwise, the few improvised moments Ryan Gosling’s character shares with his mother or Rooney Mara’s character has with her dad would have less impact if the film wasn’t such a multi-layered exercise.
Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and some of the Chili Peppers also pop up briefly as low-key versions of themselves in several Austin music festival clips. These icons are like relics in motion, only stopping briefly to give a philosophical soundbite or two that still keeps the viewer on the outside looking in.
Ultimately, Song to Song presents a beautiful, restless collage that you can identify with and dismiss at the same time. From Malick, what you get is the passive experience of watching a movie cut together from scraps of story and patches of music that somehow transcend your ideas of what a movie should be. Or at least get you thinking about it.
Song to Song is now playing at Cinéma AMC Forum.