Why was Song to Song like this? Where was that little kitten from the meme to put its tiny paw on director Terrence Malick’s hand as if to say, “No. Stop.”? Why did we need to rehash older films by these actors, from Michael Fassbender’s Shame to just about any romance starring Ryan Gosling as the lead male? Where do we even start with a film like this?
It’s a very simple premise that is wrung dry of its potential for nuance and empathy for the lead. It’s a romance that isn’t quite the romance we are led to believe, scrubbed of reason, and seemingly shoveled in only to disrupt Ryan Gosling’s character’s life. Rooney Mara’s character (it’s an exercise in futility to refer to them by their character names since they aren’t revealed until the end credits) is a self-proclaimed sex obsessive who is just drifting along with the breeze in her home town of Austin, TX.
Austin is a great choice of location for this story since it has become a sort of millennial magnet, with its cred as a blue city in a red state, and its “weirdness” that isn’t quite Portland but is a new home to ex-Portlandians. Mara feels like this hybrid, as though she could be a character from Portlandia if it were set in Austin. Malick’s favorite close-ups of her are fine at first, until her voice-over says something sophomoric like, “I love pain—it feels like life,” as the film cuts to a piñata just as it is being smashed.
The film centers on feeling, contemplation, and reflection. There is nothing wrong with this, because the moments that work well are when the reflections provide clarity, but when it doesn’t work, it flops. We root for the characters to make the decisions that will help them see happiness, but Mara’s character finds herself repeatedly in a moral gray. Mara’s father seems to want to help her, but she is too caught up in her lustful fantasies and a serious lack of direction in her life. She shows apartments, she plays music, she somehow exists around people who are incredibly rich and have beautiful houses and gorgeous waterfront property.
Ryan Gosling’s character meets her at a party, and thus begins their romance. He seems like a kind, sweet, and totally charming man. I don’t understand why she cheats on him with the sleazy womanizer Michael Fassbender, but, nothing she is involved with seems to make sense in her life any way. What is attractive about men like Fassbender’s character? He’s wealthy, well-connected, and, like Mara, is obsessive. He has the kind of energy that helps musicians grow, but he rips people off. Natalie Portman is in this too, as Fassbender’s wife, and it’s almost as though she is acting in a different film entirely (and it isn’t a bad one).
This cheating is not a one-time deal. It’s daily, weekly, or straight up behind Gosling’s back. It’s sad—Fassbender’s character is a music producer, I think, and is the sort of connection in the industry that Gosling needs to make his career. Gosling and Mara spend a lot of time with their new friend Fassbender, but his gig as a musician means that he also is doing work. His girlfriend strays out of opportunity, not out of frustration or mistrust, and you realize she just doesn’t care. About anything. So why are we following her around? This glimpse into her lifestyle emphasizes the emptiness of her self-worth. Her hobbies are non-existent, despite the record deal proposal she receives, and the absence of interest in things beyond herself. Mara’s character’s realizations are almost comically undercut: in one scene, she’s standing on a sidewalk, all beauty and pout, and then a smart car zooms behind her.
The trio go to Austin City Limits Music Festival and get to spend a significant amount of time mingling with superstar musicians, from Iggy Pop and Patti Smith to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lykke Li. Smith and Li both have significantly bigger roles in the film than the other musicians. Smith reflects on the ideas of beauty in life and her love of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. Li plays a woman with whom it is implied that Gosling has had a previous relationship with, and they spend some time together outside of the festival while Mara is off with Fassbender. There are several women who seem to provide an alternative life for the three at the center of the film, but in the end, they all get hurt. Patti Smith might be the most significant of these women, because she talks at length with Mara, who finds a sense of peace with her. She acts as the wise mother that Mara doesn’t have. There is value in Smith’s words, but you can just as easily pick up one of her books or albums.
Instead, we sit through the beautiful images, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki indulging in every shot Malick desired. The beauty of the images makes it, but the story doesn’t make it worth the time spent making it, nor the time spent watching it. The reclusive director was photographed for the first time in decades at Austin City Limits Festival while making this film back in, wait for it… 2012. In the time between then and now, Malick has released several other films, and cut this one down from 8 hours of footage to this 2-hour mess. The audience at my screening sighed in relief at the end credits. If Malick’s goal was to provide something to contemplate, he certainly has served a piece that somehow straddles the line between potential masterpiece and a master’s version of filler.