The phrase “found it in the editing” describes a perilous method of filmmaking. Basically, it’s what happens when a movie has been shot with no clear vision – or there is a voluminous, unwieldy amount of footage – but during the editing process, the filmmakers are able to shape a story that is much better than the raw materials would suggest. A famous example of this is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. That movie initially had very little to do with the relationship between the two leads, but during cutting, Allen and his editor created one of the best romantic comedies of all time. More often than not, though, this approach leads to a muddled mess.
Terrence Malick’s creative process lends itself to this kind of metamorphosis in the editing room. The notoriously private director shoots and shoots, sometimes for years, and hones his narratives in the cutting room, also sometimes for years. Song to Song clearly follows this pattern. In a rare interview to promote the picture, Malick said the original cut of the film was eight hours long. That’s a far cry from the 129-minute final version. Song to Song is also a far cry from the beautiful transcendence of his best films, like Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a disappointment to be sure.
As is usually the case with Malick, the narrative structure is obsessively minimalistic. The movie follows four characters as they fall in and out of love with each other, chase their dreams, and struggle with the malaise of modern life. There’s BV, a musician trying to make his art, fighting to make ends meet. Faye, his lover, is a fellow musician who falls under the spell of the seductive, and powerful, music producer Cook. These three are locked in a poisonous love triangle that gets disrupted when Cook meets Rhonda, a teacher-turned-waitress, and she, too, is beguiled by his Svengali-like charms. The rambling, lyrical story is set to the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene. A lot of it takes place during that city’s world famous South by Southwest festival, and includes cameos of real-life rockers like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.
The best thing about Song to Song is a testament to Malick’s overall approach to storytelling. In his interview, he explained that rather than relying on traditional narratives, he likes showing “bits and pieces” of his characters’ lives. In a lesser director’s hands, this approach would result in a completely disjointed film that makes no sense. It’s astonishing, then, to realize just how many of the puzzle pieces fall into place as we’re encouraged to make connections and build a story through scenes that are more about tone than plot. When we give ourselves over to the rhythm of Malick’s world, it blossoms like a flower.
Because his films are so beautiful when the pieces come together, it’s especially frustrating to run up against elements that never find their homes. Late in the film, BV is introduced to a charming woman named Amanda during a party (he and Faye have broken up, a result of her relationship with Cook), and they begin a relationship. Their love affair is short-lived, and it leaves the audience without an emotional connection. When it comes to BV and Amanda, it feels like the director lost something in the editing instead of finding it. Cate Blanchett, an actress with no shortage of charisma, portrays Amanda, but it doesn’t make much difference, because Malick handles this thread so clumsily that no amount of magnetism can save it.
The love triangle between BV, Faye, and Cook, however, inspires a much more emotional response. Ryan Gosling’s BV and Rooney Mara’s Faye exude charm and cautious optimism mixed with world-weariness. Michael Fassbender’s Cook is the darkest element in Song to Song. He represents the evils of commercialism and capitalism; his wealth is a key that unlocks the door to destructive desires. Natalie Portman is terrific as Rhonda, a guileless woman who Cook breaks because of his possessive tendencies.
Another disappointing aspect of the movie is the tendency of Malick to slip into unintentional self-parody. His lyrical style is wholly unique, but in Song to Song, some of these passages feel like an imitator is at the helm. This is a criticism that others leveled at his last two films, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups (I haven’t had a chance to catch up with either yet). It’s a function, I think, of his partial abandonment of one of his primary focuses, the splendor of nature. Most of his other films hone in on the corruption of humanity, and his characters’ desire to return to a mythical Eden. The spiritual purity of nature and its contrast to the ugliness of humankind result in some of Malick’s most beautiful cinematic sequences. That is almost completely absent in Song to Song.
There are a few brief moments exploring the wonder of nature, but for the most part, this is a movie about people, and how ugly they can be. It’s possible he’s trying to tell us something. Maybe he sees our society increasingly cut-off from the majesty of nature, and wants to reflect that in his films. To that point, I couldn’t help but notice one of his signature shots was fundamentally different in Song to Song. He is famous for including images of golden wheat undulating in the breeze. There are numerous examples of this in Days of Heaven. Malick repeats the shot in this movie, but the wheat is noticeably desiccated, ugly. It’s a somewhat apt representation of the movie as a whole. Despite that, I’m happy that Terrence Malick is still working, pushing the boundaries of what narrative film can do. Even in his experiments that aren’t totally successful, like Song to Song, the result is visually and intellectually interesting enough to make me come back for more.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- Song to Song isn't Malick's best work by far, but I'll take anything he does just about any day of the week over something as mindless as, say, Kong: Skull Island. At least Song to Song encourages you to constantly use your brain.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There are a few moments that are completely captivating, and can only really be appreciated on a very big screen in a very dark room. One takes place in a dance club with pulsing music, and bright neon lights everywhere. It lasts a minute at best, but I lost myself in the movie for that brief stretch.
- There are also a few truly unfortunate moments. At one point, Val Kilmer shows up – also briefly – as a musician performing at SXSW. His goofy presence wrecks any momentum the movie had going. There was audible laughter from the audience I was in. Apparently, his role was much bigger in the first versions of Song to Song, but almost all of it got cut for the theatrical version.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Next week, I'll review Aftermath, a thriller loosely based on a true story. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man devastated when his wife and daughter die in a mid-air plane collision. It stars Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, and Maggie Grace.