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What is it like to be Terrence Malick? Along with ‘why did they make Cars 3 before The Incredibles 2?’, ‘how is a two and a half hour Transformers movie possible?’ and ‘what is Collateral Beauty‘, this is one of cinema’s unanswerable questions. The legendary auteur probably lives in some hermit’s cabin on a mountain in his spare time, and he refuses to give interviews, yet his brain is an object of fascination. How it works is any of our guess.
If the exact same film were under the name of any other director, I might be willing to call Song to Song pretentious. But with Malick… a pretension would be a falsehood, and I can’t shake the feeling that this is just how he sees the world.
Does Terrence Malick experience time in a different way to the rest of us mere mortals? Does the wispy voice of some Hollywood A-lister whisper sweet nothings into his ear 24 hours a day? Does he wander through fields of wheat at magic hour? Like, all the time?
Song to Song wavers languidly between beauty and nonsense, and its ludicrously unnecessary two hour runtime will convince any audience member who starts off willing to give the film a chance to lean towards the latter. I would be giving you a brief introduction to the plot at this point, but there isn’t one.
Plotlessness isn’t Malick’s problem though. It’s focus – he used to have it, but in his recent, prolific years, he’s become distracted. Song to Song begins with Rooney Mara’s Faye, and as a character study of her, it holds some genuinely brilliant moments that manage to graze something resembling insight.
It’s never clear exactly what she does, but it’s something to do with music, or at least walking around near to where music is happening. With its attention on Mara’s face and the ways in which she is withdrawn, the first quarter of Song to Song is promising.
There’s a good movie in here somewhere, one that’s at least 30 minutes shorter, and one that picks its main character and sticks with her. However, everything tumbles down when Malick decides that one is not enough. As BV, Ryan Gosling fits surprisingly well into the Malickverse, but the film should not be as interested in him as it is.
The same goes for Michael Fassbender’s Cook and the diner waitress he picks up, played by Natalie Portman. Their tendrils are explored beyond the ways in which they relate to Faye, leading to brief encounters with some other famous actors that undoubtedly filmed a lot more than we were allowed to see. Blink and you’ll miss Cate Blanchett and Holly Hunter, but at least they’re in the movie. Original promotional images from back when the film was called Weightless seemed to imply that stars such as Christian Bale and Haley Bennett would lead the film, but in the finished product they’re nowhere to be found.
Malick’s decision to expand his horizons to include a large ensemble of characters exposes another fatal flaw: his view of women is worrying, with each new female character falling into an archetype of the vulnerable innocent who needs to be shown the way by a man.
Cate Blanchett’s appearance is particularly startling – to give an actress with such authoritorial presence a role this lacking in agency should be a crime.
They’re all weak at the knees in the presence of the men in the film, and the conclusion that Malick seems to draw on Faye and BV’s relationship is blindly conceived. It’s a beautiful film (which is no surprise given Emmanuel Lubezki’s involvement), but there are too few moments when it’s able to harness those images to create one of those moments of pure cinema that Malick is always striving for.
In a film set in and around the Austin music scene, his choice of music is patchy, but there are a few instances of classical pieces that work wonders. Unfortunately, these flashes of perfect synthesis are too few and far between to count. It’s a shame that these moments that I used to admire him for are now so infrequent that they feel like accidents.
Song to Song will be released in select UK cinemas on 7th July
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