Song To Song Review [SXSW 2017]


Song To Song couldn’t be more Terrence Malick’s brand, since most Malick “narratives” connect closer to musical composition than cinematic structure. Characters mimic instruments, so distinct and defined in their specific usage. Scenes play with a constant through-line, while solos let certain players shine in their own spotlights. Malick’s vision is lyrical, flowing with a composer’s ear more than a rigid eye for beginnings and ends. It seems fitting then to follow his latest characters through their own musical journey, as they navigate Austin’s artistic circles. More internal conflicts, more wandering cameras, and certainly more interactions where participants refuse to stand still. You know – signature Malick.

It beings with a love-triangle. Music producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) carries out a torrid relationship with “receptionist” Faye (Rooney Mara), then BV (Ryan Gosling) befriends them both. Cook becomes BV’s “brother,” the man who wants to make Gosling a star, while Mara falls in *true* love with the romantic musician. We watch their jagged friendship morph as BV and Faye entangle themselves in passion, until a crossroads must be reached. Faye wants to end her affair with Cook, who moves on to small-town teacher Rhonda (Natalie Portman). Gosling wrestles with Faye’s history, which leads to the introduction of Amanda (Cate Blanchett). All these lives caught in the balance of emotion and professional pursuit, but at what cost do the lavish parties, power and ego come?

As you can guess, things get complicated. Messy, with a dash of betrayal. Malick is all about juxtaposing concerned dialogue against jubilant visuals, cutting happiness with crushing realities that make for the pain that is life. BV and Cook cheers Faye’s bottle of Mexican lager, while talk of doubt plays over happy vacationers. BV throws Faye on a rickety kitchen table and unleashes his animal instincts, while inner narratives reveal the emptiness that grows after infidelity is exposed. This is nothing new for Malick, but Song To Song is a tight example of a more focused collision of arcs. Love is so volatile. People are flawed. Being stuck in the middle of this hipster operatic delves into heady waters of introspective assessment.

Faye’s honesty is fiery and raw, first revealing a period in her life when sex had to be violent. Destructive years when she threw herself at opportunity; a sacrificial lamb selling herself to the devil that is Cook. BV is so pure, yet she chooses a mate who engages in three-ways despite romantic fulfillment existing elsewhere. This is the power a man like Cook holds, and how it corrupts. Everyone wants to sit in the lap of luxury, tantalized by money, material beauty and a regaled status. Although Malick dives deeper, emptying the bottle that cannot quench Cook’s thirst for more. Nothing is ever good enough, which displayed by his bastardization of monogamy that drives drives Faye, Rhonda and others into their own downward spiral.

The price of fame comes with a warning, and Malick does well to exploit Austin, Texas for all its scenic invitations. Sights like the city’s nightly flock of bats and namesake bars proudly wave a Texan flag (seriously, drink when you see the flag represented). Iggy Pop sips his red wine while still shirtless from yet another energetic SXSW set, while Fassbender wrestles with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. These concert scenes are like some celebutante hallucination, as Val Kilmer takes the stage to proclaim he got uranium from his mother – then showers audience members with a dusty substance. What reality is this? Although, we do start with a Die Antwoord mosh-pit scene, so why does a strung-out Kilmer even shock me?

Alas, the exhaustion of Malick’s recent projects cannot escape Song To Song, even if it’s to a lesser degree. Characters can never stand still, or sit. Do they even know how chairs work? As BV and Faye flirt, they continually circle one another like a hunter and prey. Cook is constantly overlooking something, twisting his way into the arms of whoever might be closest. When someone is grief-stricken, they run and never stop. One continued motion. This is the flow Malick constantly embraces, and that isn’t any less projected here. We jump from mind to mind, into the thoughts of complicated people whose outer-appearance couldn’t be farther from their soulful reality. With a less cohesive cast, such antics would run themselves into the ground.

Gosling broods, and exhibits the disillusioned emptiness a true artist might approach business-first industry terribleness with. Fassbender is a wild animal, given his own honey-dipped mushroom trip through a nighttime rave lit by neon demons. Mara plays both muse and victim, shackled by her own warped self-worth that pushes her desire for success. Portman finds a big-dreaming family girl who must cope with the devastation of having it all. These are (just some of) the players who give us but a brief – albeit tumultuous – glimpse into duplicitous lives. It’s one of the better ensembles that Malick has collected in recent memory.

My aversion to Malickian lore as of late has been chronicled (To The Wonder/Knight Of Cups), so take my approval as something more than appreciation. Maybe it’s the presence of song, or a more trimmed cast, but Song To Song is one of Terrence Malick’s more approachable movies as of late. Themes are much more digestible. It’s simplicity versus fame. Green vegetation fields versus iron-gated mansions. The snakes of celebrity versus the ideals of an honest, hard-working life. You’ve seen it before, and maybe even though a Malick’s lens – but a few of these character harmonies are just too good to ignore.

Song To Song Review [SXSW 2017]

Song To Song is one of the more accessible Malick films as of late, succeeding largely in part thanks to a cast who plays their dramatic beats like poetry in motion.