“I almost adore the hypocrisy of myself.”
Filmed almost five years ago, the most miraculous feat of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song’s premiere at the SXSW Conference is that it feels modern while also feeling timeless. It’s a bit of a break from the norm for Malick as well — you won’t see any hands grazing a field a wheat. Malick even has a field scene in there, but resists that temptation for self-parody he’s become scrutinized for. You’ll never take away his beloved narrations, though. He keeps finding ways to reinvent their use, implementing them this round to stitch together a collective consciousness of multiple love affairs.
Set amid the Austin music scene, the film follows the development of two love triangles, built on the initial relationship of an indie guitarist Faye (Rooney Mara) and ultra-successful music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender). As Faye continues to spend time with Cook to achieve her dreams as a musician, her social bubble grows and introduces new passions in her life, including a protege to Cook only known as BV (Ryan Gosling). Not only does he take a liking to Faye but he also earns the attention of Cook, taking him under his wing to take over the city’s music scene.
While the relationships flourish for a time, they’re slowly infected by each other. Confused jealousy slips through all angles, and pushes everyone away as even more people come into their lives including Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress that Cook takes a liking to.
Most of these moments that build the structure of the love triangle become a bit tiresome as Malick’s camera meanders from person to person. But it’s an effect that becomes quite affecting as the characters themselves roam from person to person, just as the soundtrack moves from song to song.
The only one in control here is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, all while his camera has a constant floating quality to it. Moreover, his work throughout the film — changing lenses throughout with GoPro and low-quality footage — helps emulate a greater feeling of raw intimacy in most of the scenes. At first, this is a bit disorienting, if not a bit pretentious, but it comes together in the end for greater effect.
There seems to be a lack of control on the song choices as well, and for the majority of the film, it all feels like Malick’s excuse to play some favorites without cause, since few tracks are specific to Austin. However, as a collection, they form something of a commentary that reflects Cook’s role. Just as the songs reflect the unoriginality that’s corrupted the music scene, so has Cook’s influence as the affluent producer — someone sucking the city dry of what first made it an indie hotspot.
Despite some moments of humanity, Cook is ultimately a corrupting influence that distills his counterparts down to little more than objects, as more women come into his life. But as he looks for more artificiality either in love or art, his romantic partner Faye and creative partner BV look for more significance as they continue to cross paths and develop a strong connection. Gosling and Mara have an inherent chemistry that pulls them together even more, as does Fassbender with his charm, which helps create even more earned drama with his surrounding cast.
Cate Blanchett also has a cameo role, almost exclusively with Gosling’s BV. While it’s not a bad performance, it is greatly underwritten and might have been better in the hands of someone with less star power, commanding less of the screen. Similarly, Val Kilmer’s has little more than a glorified cameo that is an exaggerated reflection of the actor himself as a crazed artist. If not for their celebrity status, their individual scenes would be among the least memorable.
Song to Song is a film that will test many viewers’ patience, but one that also rewards as the credits roll. This isn’t Malick at his best or trying to replicate his finest, and that alone is something worth applause.