By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Writer/director Terrence Malick has become one of the more divisive filmmakers of modern cinema. With recent films To the Wonder and Knight of Cups polarizing audiences and critics alike, it isn’t all that surprising that his latest film has had the same impact on the audience at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Though I found To the Wonder lukewarm and dull, and Knight of Cups rather frustrating and tedious, some things about Song to Song really spoke to me. I loved the beautifully poetic presentation, and completely understood what he was trying to say. Not everyone will enjoy or appreciate Malick’s unorthodox presentation and storytelling, but fans of his artistry should absolutely adore what he has to offer with this movie.
Set in Austin, Texas, two young and hungry songwriters named Faye (Rooney Mara) and BV (Ryan Gosling) make a romantic connection at a lavish party hosted by a music mogul named Cook (Michael Fassbender). While their romance blossoms, Faye gets seduced by the smooth-talking Cook who has the wealth to spoil her and the connections to make her a superstar. Cook, however, cannot offer Faye real love, but only temporary soothing. As BV tries to win over Faye’s heart and soul, a young and more innocent waitress named Rhonda (Natalie Portman) enters Cook’s life only to fall victim to his nasty, ugly underbelly.
Malick’s Song to Song serves as a parable of humanity’s constant struggle between good and evil, the light and the dark. Faye, like the city of Austin, has to ultimately decide what is best for her soul–the emptiness and corruption of wealth and excess, or honest-to-goodness love. Granted, Malick does get a little preachy with his message, and makes a few melodramatic choices with the story and characters; however, the lyricism and poetry of his presentation really captivated me. As a long-time resident of the Austin area, I totally am on board with his message regarding the city and the people who have flooded it. Big money has changed my beloved town and not always for the better.
Much like he does in Knight of Cups, Malick presents life and love in a surreal and dizzying way, with beautifully contemplative narration by the actors. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is superbly gorgeous, presenting Austin in all of its beauty, glory and majesty. The editing by Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, and Keith Fraase can be a little jarring at times, but works mostly well to fit Malick’s purposeful chaotic style here.
The cast all deliver outstanding performances with Gosling using his natural boyish charm, Rooney exuding a vulnerable and pained detachment and Michael Fassbender slithering as the sly and seductive devil. The film also features excellent work by Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Bérénice Marlohe. The movie also boasts a prodigious and fascinating mix of cameos, including Holly Hunter, Patti Smith, Val Kilmer, Lykke Li, Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith and Alex Klinghoffer. Some of these appearances fit in with the story, while others feel like they are simply added for a little flavor and entertainment.
Which is interesting, given that Malick doesn’t seem to be all that interested in making a highly entertaining movie. I don’t mean that as a negative here; I am simply indicating that his purpose goes beyond that of simple popcorn cinema. Malick is a seminal artist who wishes to enlighten people with film and do something different from the usual movies produced in Hollywood. Similar to Faye’s dilemma in determining what is best for her soul, movie audiences should take some time away for the usual blockbuster tent pole, the typical rom-com, the usually mindless action flick and experience an art film that requires much thought and reflection.