A new film from Terrence Malick used to be greeted with reverence and awe, an event for the ages.
Now, after a period of relative productivity for the famous former recluse following his 2011 Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life, you’ll struggle to find this one playing anywhere.
Despite boasting a cast of Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman and Rooney Mara, Song to Song is being kept quiet.
It’s always hard for a distinctive visual thinker such as Malick to retain his style over decades without it being absorbed into the mainstream. So influential has his wafts, voiced-over method become that you now see Malickian flourishes in perfume ads – and you can’t then unsee those commercials throughout his films, especially while Natalie Portman runs barefoot across the sand, twirling and flirting with the camera.
You try to pay respect and take the film seriously, but you can’t really. It’s not that Gosling or Fass are bad (actually, on reflection, Fass is terrible – or at the least the character he and his director have tried to sketch out is terrible) but they’re asked to behave like such morons, flitting about, gazing and mooning, preening and smiling, goofing around and tickling canaries, laughing with peasants, or pretending to be weightless on a private jet (actually, that last scene is pretty funny).
Fass is an arrogant music exec in the town of Austin where he spends a lot of time hanging out at music festivals, which permits crowd scenes and snippets of music, cameos from Iggy Pop and Patti Smith and John Lydon. He and his musician pal Gosling end up in a love triangle with Rooney Mara, until one of them picks up Natalie Portman, a diner waitress (oh, come on) and they’re off skipping through the long grasses and making love behind wafts of linen curtain.
Perhaps if you’ve never seen a Malick film, you might be blown away by his musings and stylings and this would be a good place to start (better than Knight of Cups and at least there’s no dinosaurs a la Tree of Life).
And Malick should still command respect – for Badland and The Thin Red Line, both masterpieces – as he’s capable of finding a rare essence in an actor and a character, conjuring up a scene or a moment of absolute beauty and insight, an image or a second that somehow says everything.
But you have to look hard for it in Song to Song, get through a lot of shots of swans at sunset or Fassbender monkeying around on a Mexican beach while Gosling strums with Mariachis, all of it floating by on a wave of breathy, self-indulgent self-help philosophical guff. “Follow the light, but where to find it?” I fear it’s the one over the door that says Exit.