Terrence Malick’s ‘Song to Song’ exhibits beautiful cinematography, awfully boring characters

Van Redin/Broad Green Pictures/Courtesy
"Song to Song" | Broad Green Pictures
Grade: D

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While it is almost a universally agreed-upon fact that absinthe tastes about as good as gasoline, somehow, they still manage to sell it. And who are we to judge? People have different tastes. The line where an acquired taste ends and legitimate art begins is as blurry as one’s vision after shockingly few swigs of the vile liquor, and it’s been the comfortable resting place of director Terrence Malick’s films for the last several years, to varying degrees of critical success.

There’s a disclaimer that should probably come with every Malick film: “for Malick fans only.” At the very least, his post-“The Tree of Life” films, which do not share in its widespread praise, deserve that demarcation. But Malick’s fans are already going to go see “Song to Song,” the director’s latest foray into the eternal struggle between ambition and greed against purity and love. This, then, is for the rest of us.

The film loosely chronicles the loosely entangling love lives of three people who are supposedly affiliated with the music industry in Austin, Texas, though one would be hard-pressed to see any passion for music in any of their personalities. The musical environment, in particular SXSW and Austin City Limits Music Festival, serves only as one of the backdrops for Malick’s longtime cinematographer-partner Emmanuel Lubezki to capture, as brief inserts, the connective tissue between soundless, slow-motion scenes of vaguely uncomfortable, animalistic foreplay between two — or more — of the film’s characters.

Those shots, which also include a multitude of warm, light-infused scenes from Austin and the surrounding rivers and forests, are actually the most visually engaging aspects of the finished product, a relieving and beautiful break from the monotony and repetitiveness with which Malick attempts to answer the question: “How many times can a female character stand coyly and wistfully in a floor-to-ceiling window, twirling within the billowing, translucent curtains during a single, 2-hour film?”

Unfortunately, very little of Lubezki’s camerawork actually captures anything of the festivals the film is supposed to be set within, besides the occasional insert of the inside of what seems to be the same mosh pit every time. The few live performances that are included are shot with the performances artificially muted, the cameras and audio focused entirely on the characters standing in the wings or balconies and generally ignoring the music being performed on stage altogether.

Faye (Rooney Mara), the film’s most prolific voiceover whisperer, intones at one point that she lives life “song to song,” which actually would’ve been a more enjoyable way to watch the film, had it not been conspicuously lacking in any distinct songs to speak of, despite the considerable access to those festivals Malick was granted and the substantial amount of footage he shot at them — a fact already lamented on in detail over at Pitchfork. It’s disappointing then that, from an initial cut that was around eight hours long, Malick couldn’t find a single live performance to include, or a single full take of his actors performing music, their supposed passion.

There are a few scenes with dogs in them, though, and those are nice.

Ultimately, the problem is that gorgeous cinematography alone can’t hold an audience rapt to characters who are so unforgivably boring in every way, from their murky motivations to their apparent lack of anything to do with their lives other than have their hearts continuously broken by each other without learning a goddamn thing. It’s honestly dubious whether any of them truly experience heartbreak anyways; it’s meant here in the 7th-grade sense.

Whether or not it’s because of Malick’s penchant for shooting without giving his actors a fixed script, the film wastes the talents of a truly all-star cast, which includes Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett in addition to Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Mara — all of whom are somehow limited to something like a page or two of real dialogue. In Malick’s world, people don’t talk to each other, they talk to us, the audience, in cringeworthy attempts at direct philosophizing that no real human can empathize with. “I was desperate to feel something real,” Mara confesses as the film opens. “I wanted to live. Sing my song.”

Nobody talks like that, even to themselves, but that’s not necessarily the problem. Reflecting some authentic reality is only one possible avenue of getting at truth. The problem is that the truth the characters — and Malick, by association — seem to be seeking here is hardly profound. All three main characters are, in their own ways, fuck-ups, but none of them really attempt to do anything about it.

Their problems are themselves painfully first-world and frustratingly childish; that too doesn’t sink a film on its own, but it means the director has to work harder. We feel eminently for characters whose emotional struggle feels authentic rather than blasé — take Chiron and his mother in “Moonlight,” or the two brothers in “Hell or High Water.” All of these characters are pulled into themselves and struggle to communicate their emotions to those around them, but the directors of those two films do the legwork to make sure we, as an audience, understand why what they’re going through is important.

In “Song to Song,” we don’t, and because we are left bereft of grounding scenes of character interactions that aren’t someone toying with someone else’s midriff, the film’s 2-hour plus runtime leaves one really fidgeting as the last 30 minutes of footage could easily have, and in some cases did, appear earlier in the film anyways. The final, merciful cut to black produced a chorus of clearly relieved laughter from the press in attendance at the San Francisco screening, as the majority of critics stood up immediately, presumably to get the hell out and try to do something meaningful with their rapidly dwindling evening. The characters in “Song to Song” could’ve used some motivation like that.

“Song to Song” opens today at Shattuck Cinemas.

Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].