For a director whose films have often been referred to as “inaccessible,” Terrence Malick doesn’t seem to have strayed too far from that perception with his latest movie, judging by the early reviews.
Song to Song, which had its world premiere as the opening-night film at the South by Southwest festival last week, is set amid the Austin, Texas, music scene and stars Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman. The film follows two intersecting love triangles between a music executive (Fassbender), his business partner (Gosling), a budding musician (Mara) and an ex-teacher (Portman). The movie is short on traditional dialogue and heavy on voiceovers and improvisation, which the cast said at the Friday night premiere created a unique challenge (the reclusive Malick was not in attendance).
Said Fassbender: “It’s a lot of improvisation. You read the sides, they’re very dense. For me, it’s hard to learn lines quickly, so it’s about getting a feel or flavor of what is happening in the scene and then improvising it.” Added Mara: “It was kind of hard to know how to prepare because everything was so vague.”
Critics also are having a hard time wrapping their heads around the latest from Malick, who made his name with Badlands but then famously dropped out of view for 20 years after 1978’s Days of Heaven, returning with the critically acclaimed The Thin Red Line. In a late-career rush, Malick has directed The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups — all to mixed, at best, receptions.
“Ersatz local color aside, suffice to say that Song to Song is not designed to win back onetime admirers who felt Malick’s To the Wonder and Knight of Cups drowned in their own navels,” writes The Hollywood Reporter film critic John DeFore. “Though offering the occasional radiant moment (usually involving scenery), it is of a piece with those films, and is unlikely to fare much better at the box office. If it does, credit the draw of Ryan Gosling, whose younger fans will be wholly unprepared for what they get (and don’t get) here.”
He adds that “Malick’s storytelling…pastes vast voice-over monologues across footage of characters frolicking their way through every piece of high-end real estate in Austin and many in the surrounding Hill Country to boot. Sequences move from location to location — returning often to the VIP areas of Austin’s many outdoor music fests, but almost never watching anyone perform — and the film’s relationships are nearly as transient, dissolving before the viewer is quite convinced they actually exist.”
DeFore isn’t the only critic to give the movie — which hits U.S. theaters Friday — an unfavorable review. It’s currently holding at a 40 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Giving the movie a C-plus grade, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn argues that the movie is redundant and overlong at 130 minutes.
“There are reasons to delight in the autonomy of Malick’s poetic approach, particularly the way he treasures the lyricism of the natural world over narrative coherence, but that vision can only go so far,” Kohn writes. “His cosmic IMAX documentary The Voyage of Time had a logical reason for throwing plot to the wind, but other recent efforts Knight of Cups and To the Wonder reduce the magisterial approach of Tree of Life to undercooked fragments. The latest example is Song to Song, an occasionally marvelous but redundant collage of moments from Austin’s music scene. There’s plenty of intrigue to the dissonance of a hard-rock lifestyle and Malick’s gentle touch, but much of the movie’s potential is overshadowed by the impulses of a director unwilling to get there.”
ComingSoon.net’s Joshua Starns writes that Malick is “stuck in a rut.”
“Malick’s distinct directorial and narrative approach has set his take on [various themes] apart from others who have attempted the same thing. At some point, someone will do a retrospective taking everything from A New World through Song to Song and explore his development of those themes across multiple works. And I look forward to reading that some day. Living through it piece by piece is a very different animal, however — much like the young lovers of Song to Song, we can only focus on a small differentiated element in front of us at the moment but are filled with the existential dread that all of those moments are basically the same. That Malick, like all of us humans, is stuck in a rut he can’t get out of because his perspective is limited to fragments.”
The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez gives the film a C grade, noting that as a filmmaker, Malick “has abandoned narrative cinema, for a fragmented, quasi-experimental form, that while once unique, has curdled into cliche, and even self-parody.” Arguing that the film’s running time could be trimmed by 30 minutes, he adds: “The result is disheartening and may even leave you resentful, with the knowledge that a true poet is painting with the same splendorous canvas, and yet still offering diminishing returns.”
He continues: “Certainly in an eyes-wide-open, woke culture, Malick’s movies are sure to provoke the socially conscious tired of seeing white privilege on screen and Song to Song features much of it. Nearly every scene is shot in some palatial Austin mansion (nearly all of them with gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows). No one seems to work, the privileged protagonists seems to wander about, and yet someone is ostensibly paying for what are many of the movie’s ostentatious parties of excess. You would hardly fault the critic that says, ‘Enough of this fucking bullshit.'”
Entertainment Weekly’s Joe McGovern gives the movie an even worse D grade.
“In terms of content and meaningfulness, Terrence Malick’s Song to Song is the cinematic equivalent of a Trump press conference,” he writes. “Incoherent, disconnected, self-interrupting, obsessed with pointless minutiae and crammed full of odd, limp stabs at profundity from a closed-off man in his 70s who apparently has no ability to edit or accept constructive criticism. Malick, too, still inspires a passionate minority of hardcore devotees who will defend everything he does, no matter how inept or ludicrous, out of some bizarre sense of base loyalty towards the man who made Days of Heaven 39 years ago. Even for those groupies, this new humiliating wreck of a movie — the reclusive director’s worst ever — presents a test of will.”
Marten Carlson, reviewing the movie for Consequence of Sound, described the movie as an “overbearing take on the music business” with “no emotional or philosophical through-line to carry the audience.” Calling the movie “just a parade of music and film celebrities,” Carlson adds that it “lacks the soul of Malick’s best work.”
“The film is, for all its lofty aspirations, an empty experience,” he writes. “To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and now Song of Song all deal with wealthy Americans searching for love. This could be said of many of Malick’s protagonists, but something is truly missing here. In Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line, love is not romance. It is an elemental force that comes from above, from some great divine source, and infuses our lives with meaning and purpose. In Song to Song, the characters aren’t seeking divinity, but simply a new girlfriend or boyfriend.”
Robbie Collin of the U.K. paper The Telegraph notes that the love scenes don’t quite work.
“Sex and Malick have never been an easy fit, but Song to Song plumbs new boreholes of cringe in that department, and its various bedroom encounters, shot in the usual extreme wide-angle by the director’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are gauzy and bloodless,” Collin writes. “The film is to sex as a lepidopterist is to a butterfly cabinet — it gets right in there with the magnifying glass, but perish the thought that anything might flap.”
Variety‘s Peter Debruge notes that Malick took a 20-year break between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line.
“It pains me to say it, but Malick might want to consider another lengthy hiatus,” Debruge writes. “Rushed into production mere months after his nearly-self-parodic, Hollywood-set Knight of Cups, Song to Song finds the maestro in broken-record mode, rehashing more or less the same themes against the backdrop of the Austin music scene — merely the latest borderline-awful Malick movie that risks to undermine the genius and mystery of his best work.”
Calling the story “sprawling yet shallow,” he also argues that Portman, along with co-stars Cate Blanchett and Berenice Marlohe, are “capable of so much more.”
Still, not every critic was hurling rotten tomatoes at the film. Among those who wrote positive reviews were Jordan Hoffman of the U.K.’s Guardian, who gives it four out of five stars, and Christopher Hooton of the U.K.’s Independent, who gives it five out of five stars in a review with the headline: “A masterpiece, life-changing and other superlatives I stand by.”
And Screen Crush’s Erin Whitney writes: “Song to Song is far from his strongest film, but it’s his best and most exciting work since The Tree of Life. If you’re willing to practice some patience and let Malick’s images wash over you, you might just find something magnificent here.”