'Song to Song': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Van Redin / Broad Green Pictures
This emotionally challenged romance gives more ammo to those who've turned on the revered auteur.

Premiering as the opening-night film at SXSW, Terrence Malick's latest finds Rooney Mara balancing affairs with Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling.

Those who followed rumors about Terrence Malick's Song to Song, which made headlines years ago as the reclusive filmmaker took cast and crew into the thick of real-life music festivals, may be under the impression the Austin-set relationship film is about music. They should get over that idea before entering the theater. Though its protagonists purportedly are musicians, Song to Song has as little to do with music-making as the majority of its settings — skyscraper condos with commanding views and cold interiors — have to do with the Old Austin that nurtured a famous music scene before techies and carpetbaggers took over the city.

Bizarrely, of the many musicians Malick uses as value-added decor here, not one actually hails from this city. Which is just as well: For an Austinite inclined to recoil from this noodling, chilly film, how much worse would it be if Malick had treated a Britt Daniel, Gary Clark Jr. or Alejandro Escovedo with as little regard as he has for Iggy Pop and John Lydon? (Patti Smith, who drops in often, fares better, but her true stories of marriage and grief still play like window dressing.)

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. 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.

Gosling plays an unnamed songwriter being courted by a rich record producer (Michael Fassbender). At the kind of party where naked women serve as sushi platters, Fassbender's creepy mogul directs Gosling's attention toward a trio of mute ladies and suggests he should "pick one." But Gosling has his eye on Rooney Mara, who lingers near the pool, earbuds in, as if she's better than all this.

The two begin an affair, Mara hiding the fact that she is also sleeping with Fassbender in the hope he'll be good for her own music career. The three of them hop on a private jet for Mexico, and for a time the movie seems intent on developing (in its fragmented, voiceover-soggy way) a romantic triangle.

But that nascent tension deflates mysteriously before Gosling ever learns about his rival. Fassbender spies a gorgeous waitress (Natalie Portman), throws her in his Ferrari, and takes her out to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a conveniently timed music event. Though raised by her mother (Holly Hunter) to be wary, the waitress allows herself to be wooed; soon they're married, whereupon Fassbender can coax her into desultory threesomes with hookers.

The above synopsis, of course, is more direct than Malick's storytelling, which pastes vast voiceover 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.

Gosling and Mara split up, each finding another lover of dubious appropriateness. And Mara devotes a surprising amount of her interior dialogue to worrying that she isn't a good person, a self-doubt that seemingly doesn't plague the men in her life.

Near the end, a handful of fog-draped, static exterior shots are strung together in a brief montage. Nobody's talking, on screen or off, and there's no hint of the money that wafts through the rest of the film. The sequence contributes nothing to the story. It's heavenly.

Production companies: Buckeye Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment, Waypoint Entertainment
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter
Director-screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda, Ken Kao
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Tanner Beard
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jack Fisk

Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Editors: Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, Keith Fraase

Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: South by Southwest (Headliners)

Rated R, 128 minutes