Film Review: Song to Song

Musicians and their friends shuffle through relationships in another enigmatic offering from Terrence Malick.
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Newly prolific writer-director Terrence Malick returns to familiar themes with Song to Song, an Austin-set drama with an A-list cast. Despite Oscar winners and a trendy SXSW backdrop, Malick's allusive, love-it-or-hate-it style is the main focus here.

Like his last outing, Knight of Cups, Song to Song features a rebellious protagonist estranged from a demanding father. BV (Ryan Gosling) is a songwriter seduced into a dark world by Cook (Michael Fassbender), an unscrupulous music producer. Cook's primary lure is Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring musician who uses sex to avoid facing up to her life. She drifts from Cook to BV and back again, the three sharing a vacation in Mexico before a dispute over copyrights sends BV into a tailspin.

While he hooks up with Amanda (Cate Blanchett), a lonely visitor from Britain, Cook befriends Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress and teacher. Cook's sexual liaisons and drug use leave Rhonda ravaged, dismaying her mother Miranda (Holly Hunter).

Reduced to pure narrative, Song to Song is a heavy-breathing soap opera with an astonishingly overqualified cast. Malick's distinctive stream-of-consciousness directing and disruptive editing serve to either elevate the material or grind it into arty Euro-trash chic, depending on your taste for diaphanous dresses and wispy, pseudo-philosophical utterances. Howlers include: "You killed my love." "I played with the flame of life." "Come save me from my bad heart."

Using extraordinarily high-end resources (that award-winning cast, ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, legendary production designer Jack Fisk), Malick is continuing his efforts to develop a new filmmaking grammar. It's a style that uses free association to fill out remarkable depth for characters, to dispense with almost all exposition, and to pinpoint the moments when emotions occur.

On the other hand, Malick seems uncertain about the Austin scene. Most of Song to Song's big cameos are musicians from 40 years ago (and a baffling Val Kilmer), signs that the director is more out of touch here than he was with the Hollywood hedonism in Knight of Cups.

Song to Song also seems to be repeating many of the themes and situations in Knight of Cups, to lesser effect. One significant change is Malick's focus on Faye and Rhonda, who get considerable screen time on their own. In Rhonda's case, that's not necessarily a good thing. Despite a fully involved performance from Portman, her character remains a tawdry cliché of a woman brought low by temptation.

If there's a sense of diminishing returns to Song to Song, no one makes movies like Malick. No one combines sound, music, imagery and performance in quite this way, and few raise such compelling questions about identity, purpose and meaning. When he succeeds, the results are worth all the struggle. In a throwaway moment, an escort describes losing her husband. "God has a plan, and this is part of his plan," she says as she contemplates her ruined life. In a few seconds of screen time, Malick zeroes in on religion's central paradox. And then moves on to more billowing curtains, more models posing pensively, more maddening ellipses.

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