Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter
Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to see this film the day after its premiere at SXSW. It was at an advanced members’ screening at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood – so the overall experience of seeing this film may have coloured this review somewhat.
Despite having a ‘difficult’ time with Malick’s most recent film, ‘Knight of Cups’, I had high hopes for ‘Song to Song’. The cast is pretty mind-blowing: Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, not to mention the many cameos from the music world. There also seemed to be a bit more focus for this film (you can’t go so far as to call it a plot) – following an ensemble of characters and their successes and failures in the music world of Austin, Texas. Of course, it’s not really about that, it’s about sex and relationships, in a group of impossibly rich, white, glamorous and ridiculously good-looking people. Although there is not as much depth and substance to it as hardcore Malick aficionados believe, if you just let the stunning images wash over you, it is an enjoyable experience.
The acting is impressive and it is interesting to watch the loose, improvisational style. Fassbender is particularly impressive as the least likeable of the characters – an executive taking advantage of struggling musicians Gosling and Mara. One of the reasons I liked this more than ‘Knight of Cups’ was that at least the women got to be more fully realised, with more dialogue and rounded personalities. Although it seems as though Mara’s character is the protagonist at first, as she starts the internal monologue, the voice-overs are actually shared between several different characters, so we gain insight into different perspectives. Part of the thrill of this film is watching the characters backstage at various concerts and festivals and seeing real music artists and bands, some of whom interact impressively naturalistically with the characters.
Of course the film does get progressively more ridiculous, piling on the beautiful people in beautiful locations until it’s hard not to burst out laughing. While Gosling and Mara are estranged from each other, Gosling meets Blanchett who appears to live in a literal waterside castle. Mara meets Bérénice Marlohe (with the exact same physical characteristics of all the women – Malick certainly seems to have a type, like a modern-day Hitchcock), who lives in yet another stunning, albeit modernist house.
As with ‘Knight of Cups’ (which featured Brian Dennehy – the best thing about that film), it is the older actors playing parents/mentors who provide the scenes of real emotion and interest. Holly Hunter plays Portman’s mother and there is touching scene in which she almost ‘baptises’ Portman with bath water, juxtaposed with Fassbender watching prostitutes in a shower – one of the few symbolic images that I really ‘got’. Patti Smith (yes!) plays a mentor to Mara, dispensing advice with real humanity and warmth. There is a heartbreaking scene between Gosling and his father, who he has had complicated relationship with and is now gravely ill.
Of course it is a cliché, but it is true that every single shot of this film could exist as a photograph and be hung in an art gallery. It is hard not to get swept up in how beautiful everything and everyone is. This is the type of film that you really need to let wash over you, immerse yourself in and not get too hung up on plot. There are things I really like about this film and about Malick. I can understand why actors are lining up to work with him – they are given the opportunity to work in a unique way and are afforded a lot more creative freedom than they are used to. But, it is also frustrating. It is hard to feel any sympathy for the constant angst that these incredibly privileged people are suffering. Everyone seems to be suffering from self-indulgent existential crises, which would be understandable if the characters were teenagers (see ‘Edge of Seventeen’), but these are grown ups, lucky to be living in a glamorous world – you feel like shaking them and screaming “get over yourselves!”
Malick is always going to divide audiences and critics. He will always have his core, die-hard defenders and those who find him insufferable. I sit somewhere in between. On a purely aesthetic level, as a work of art, I appreciate his films. But in terms of character, narrative or many other aspects that most people expect from films, it is irritating. It’s just impossible to care for these people, compared to something like ‘Moonlight’, where your heart aches as you yearn for the characters to succeed.
Although I have avoided reviews of this film, I did read something interesting recently – it is hard to imagine that Malick’s films make much money and they would often be considered critical failures. Would a female director be allowed to keep making films under such circumstances? I will always be interested in what Malick is doing next, but I will always also approach his work with trepidation. But, I will probably turn up to the cinema anyway – ready to be enthralled by the beauty and frustrated by the characters in equal measure. Maybe this makes me a sucker, but I choose to treat the experience the same as going to an art gallery, something I love to do. Malick’s work is art and art is supposed to be challenging. Expect this film to challenge you!