SXSW Movie Review: ‘SONG TO SONG’ – poetic beats play on repeat

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

SONG TO SONG 
Rated R, 129 minutes.
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan GoslingNatalie Portman and Cate Blanchett

Reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick started his career off strong with what many film enthusiasts label as “masterpieces,” followed by a near 20 year gap. Since 2011’s Tree of Life, the Texas based artist has been rather prolific, releasing three features and one IMAX documentary that have achieved varying degrees of success despite his immense reputation.

His latest film Song to Song is an impressionistic visual poem that will completely abandon most moviegoers who purchase a local arthouse ticket expecting to see the likes of Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara vamping through the streets of Austin.

While Malick’s work is certainly challenging and it’s difficult to find meaning within the meandering scenes of voice narration and ultra close-ups of its actors, the film is Malick’s most accessible work since the Oscar-buzzed film Tree of Life. (Note: Neither of these films are really all that accessible.)

With that being said, just know that you’re being asked to take risks as you jaunt through the Austin music scene, no questions asked. Continuity doesn’t matter and neither does narrative structure, but if you’re willing and able to read between the lines there is a thematic semblance that has the potential to turn into something quite lovely.

L-R: Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling staring at the vastness of existence in SONG TO SONG. Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Over the course of the two-hour-and-10-minute runtime, Malick and his frequent camera man (three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuelle “Chivo” Lubezki) photograph these mega-stars up close and in a way that pulls them down to reality, brings a rawness to their characters and allows the film to be somewhat believable. These images, coupled with Malick’s treasured voiceover narration, create a lyricism that hits the target in some moments and explores the notion that in our lives we travel from lover to lover, and from kiss to kiss, as we travel from “Song to Song.”

Our main vessel for this exploration is Faye (Mara, who gives a cold and cynical stare), a woman oddly cut between two men. BV (Gosling), an aspiring songwriter from West Texas, serves as her primary love interest while the vapid/impulsive music manager Cook (Fassbender) is kept as her side piece. We follow them all as they arbitrarily stroll through the city of Austin, live concert sets from Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Stooges, incredibly brief cameos from other rock artists, and a few eccentric moments with Val Kilmer as he shaves his head on stage in front of a crowd of thousands.

The moments of pure poetry do shine through Malick’s aesthetic as we get to “know” the characters while they fall in and out of love. One minute they are here and the next they are gone. Malick is suggesting that these times aren’t tangible and are somewhat superficial, and that as the years fade on so do the memories.

Song to Song is messy and frustrating, but there’s an earnestness to this piece of work that clicks. Although there are times when you’re dying for any excuse to look away from the monotony of the montage, it’s yet another vanity project that’s as isolating as it is immersive. These are the difficult contradictions of life inside a Malick movie.

SONG TO SONG will have a limited release sometime at the end of March to early April.

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