Song to Song Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. Opens Friday at Regal Green Valley Ranch and Village Square.
As a world-renowned director, Terrence Malick continues to attract some of the best actors in the world to his films. He seems less and less interested, however, in actually letting them act, or even function as more than beautiful, pensive props. Song to Song, Malick's latest feature, stars Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, with supporting roles for Oscar winners Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Holly Hunter; one could be forgiven for anticipating dramatic fireworks. But two hours and change in the company of these characters reveals virtually nothing about any of them, even though the leads—as is the case in every Malick film—continually relay their innermost thoughts in whispery voiceover. Replace the entire cast with catalog models and the movie would play much the same, and look far more honest.
To be fair, Malick now works in a deliberately non-dramatic mode, following the actors as they improvise and shaping the result over years in the editing room. (Most of Song to Song was shot back in 2012.) His narrative here is gossamer-thin: Mara's character, whose name is apparently Faye—it's all but impossible to glean basic details like this from the actual movie—falls for a musician apparently named BV (Gosling), but neglects to tell him that she's been involved for some time with BV's manager, who apparently goes by Cook (Fassbender). A breakup eventually ensues, following which each leg of this love triangle takes up with someone else: BV with Blanchett's Apparently Amanda, Cook with Portman's Apparently Rhonda, and Faye with a French woman, Apparently Zoey (Skyfall's Bérénice Marlohe). All of this canoodling is set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas, music scene, with the cast present at various real-life concerts.
Here and there, Malick succeeds in creating beauty and tension from the juxtaposition of shots, whether due to an abrupt leap across time and space or a fleeting, seemingly random image (Faye being startled by street traffic, for example) that symbolically reflects a character's state of mind. And maybe someone who hasn't seen The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and/or Knight of Cups will be entranced. But this director's stylistic tics—most notably, his penchant for having the actors wander aimlessly through scenic locations, gazing enigmatically at each other, while the camera bobs and weaves around them—have become empty crutches. There's nowhere near enough visual majesty here to compensate for the vacuous nature of the ostensible relationships between these pretty ciphers. One character's death toward the end has so little impact that it's almost instantly forgotten—not just by the viewer, but seemingly by the film as well. Malick's films have always been somewhat abstract—that's part of their greatness. But push that too far and you wind up with something flimsy and bloodless.