Terrence Malick is not known for playing it safe. His avant-garde style has been a dichotomizing force among film critics for over a decade. He marches to the beat of his own drum, but recently that beat has been repetitive and monotonous. Song to Song is an Austonian melody played in a very familiar tune, making the experience less unique and much more manufactured.
Austin has the proud distinction of being the least Texas city in Texas. A city that openly embraces its quirks and “weirdness” to become an uncommon mecca in the south. Malick creates what he considers a love letter to the city, but proves he doesn’t understand the city or the offbeat aura at all. In what started for Malick during The Tree of Life, his cinematic style has begun to shift from visually visceral to vastly vapid. The imagery in Tree was powerful, moving and contained a beautiful ferocity that helped liven up the weak narrative. Knight of Cups introduces more subtle cinematography used to accentuate some of the more profound philosophical ideas the film introduces. Song to Song doesn’t offer any compromise as it imitates Knight’s visual style without offering a trade off in the story. That essentially turns the film into an Austin spotter’s guide that could double as a commercial for tourism if put on mute.
The quality of Malick’s films has devolved to the point of becoming formulaic. They have moved from being relatable to being only about rich, good-looking white people as they effortlessly coast through life offering the most shallow bits of pseudo-wisdom. The plot itself centers around different love stories, some nurturing and some toxic. There is no sense of time or chronology as the film jumps around like some sort of Vonnegutian wet dream. The convoluted story has the same sleep voiceover that has been infecting his films since Tree. The soft-spoken dialogue is meant to but give the film a ponderous and tranquil tone, but ends up becoming frustrating as the film does little to earn it. If there is a market for films that promote sleep, Malick is beginning to corner the market on it with his Tranquility Trilogy.
The true joy of Malick films is the talent he attracts. Actors like Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman. They all make Song to Song bearable with their individual performances, even though it is hard to see how they are all connected through a thinly veiled themes. Rooney Mara ends up being the lifeblood of this stale song by providing an emotional center that captures our attention while providing the only true engaging elements inside the film. Another surprising element in the film comes in the form of a stunt that comes off more as a gimmick. Malick included several music artists in his film, like Florence Welch, Iggy Pop, and Lykke Li in his film, in what seemed like a publicity stunt. For the most part, that is true except in the case of Patti Smith, who, with Rooney Mara, helped create some of the most intimate and enlightening moments in the film.
There is a certain tune trapped inside of Terrence Malick’s head, and it is infecting his work. Every iteration his next film seems like an attempt to improve on his previous, same idea in his past films. The outcome ends up being films like Song to Song that are becoming a compilation of his greatest hits with little to nothing new to offer us aside from a few new fresh faces for the film’s emptiness to hide behind.