Before the screening of Terrence Malick’s Austin-centric Song To Song, star Michael Fassbender told the crowd that Malick was the type of filmmaker whose style was so unique it became evident “after just a few seconds.” He’s 100% right, of course, but I couldn’t help wondering if we’d be getting the powerhouse storyteller who brought us The Thin Red Line Terence Malick, or the aimlessly self-indulgent storyteller who made Tree of Life.
It was pretty clear from the film’s opening line, a whisper heavy voice despondently explaining their love for violent sex “just to feel something,” that we’d be in for two hours of the latter.
More specifically, it’s a two-hour hodgepodge of washed-out cinematography, sweeping camera shots, and an arsenal of trick lenses, assembled in a way that didn’t so much as resemble editing, but more the motion picture equivalent of a 65-car pile up on a major freeway. Scenes artlessly crash into one-another, with every character alternately narrating their inner thoughts with the same forced, breathy delivery that masquerades as profundity.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the film’s structure was akin to a reel of film that fell into a blender and then reassembled with scotch tape, the characters themselves give us nothing to invest in. At all.
While Fassbender and co-star Ryan Gosling are barely sketched out as a big-shot producer and a working musician, respectively, the female leads, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Bérénice Marlohe are so completely ill-defined that they’re practically interchangeable. Which is a real drawback when it’s implied that these relationships are central to the story. (Sorry, “story.”)
The strangest/most frustrating part of Song To Song, however, is its portrayal of Austin — a city that’s only really seen through the windows of high-rise condos or from the windshield of sports cars. For a film that describes itself as “set against the music scene in Austin, Texas,” culturally speaking the city feels as far away as the skyline does when seen in the distant background from the decks of opulent mansions and their wrap-around pools.
Granted, it also says the film is about a “love triangle,” which would imply a complicated relationship between three characters, and not a musical chairs-style bed-hopping between the film’s six leads. That’s not a love triangle, that’s some kind of wild sex rhombus — which, come to think about it, might be the only part of life in Austin that the movie manages to get right.
For a film that shirks the conventions of a coherent story, sympathetic (or least interesting) characters, and one that seemed to hinge entirely on the fact that it was set in Austin’s music scene, it’s strangely absent any Austin musicians, much like its soundtrack is absent any Austin music. Instead, it just comes off as a half-baked fetishization of Austin’s nouveau-rich, the soulless favor-seekers and in-name-only artists who chip away at the city’s spiritual core, one Tuscan-style McMansion and noise ordinance at a time.
Even Fassbender’s character, Cook (a fact you have to consult IMDB for), laments early on that “Everything’s for sale,” an arrogant, condescending, and ultimately accurate sentiment. And one that — along with the aforementioned sex rhombus — might be the only aspect of Song To Song that feels even remotely like Austin. Okay, that and Val Kilmer showing up near the end, screaming and cutting his hair while on stage at a music festival. That kinda thing still happens down here all the time.
Song To Song opens nationwide on March 17th.