Ryan Gosling Serenades SXSW in ‘Song to Song’

Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Rooney Mara lead Terrence Malick’s latest equal parts beguiling and baffling drama—a romance set against Austin’s music scene.

Courtesy SXSW

A Terrence Malick movie never ends.

Both because of the running time—Song to Song, the premiere of which opened the 2017 SXSW Film Festival in Austin Friday night, ran for a seat-shifting 2 hours and 25 minutes—but also because you never stop thinking about what you just saw.

Was it good? Did you actually like it?

You’re annoyed and in awe, a film this scattershot yet so stunning.

You’re deeply moved and also entirely emotionally severed from what just transpired, a byproduct of Malick’s signature editing, which trumpets style and lovingly staged snapshots of character interaction—typically accompanied by extremely self-serious voice-over and a strident classical score—over any discernible narrative.

You’re consistently baffled, and only occasionally moved to check your watch, but otherwise distracted by this world he has created, populated with impossibly beautiful people with unmanageable big feelings, whose entire lifetimes are apparently spent frolicking outdoors at dusk.

It would be broaching on Malick parody, were the Malick style not so meticulous, not so gorgeous, and, perhaps even, not so relishing in its very polarization—every swoon over it is met with a spit-take. What is happening? But also: It’s all happening.

Coherence is besides the point. But also this might be Malick’s most coherent film.

The enigmatic writer-director has been prolific of late, with the mere five films he made from 1973 to 2005 standing in stark contrast to his four films since 2011 (Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups). Song to Song is six years in the making, with star Rooney Mara joking at a (very brief) Q&A before Austin’s premiere that, “It’s so long ago now that it’s sort of hard to remember what it felt like” to make it.

Which is interesting, because feeling is the point of the piece.

Sight unseen, with plot typically shrouded in mystery (as is the case with Malick’s works), the film was referred to as a love poem. That’s both in relation to the city of Austin, where the piece was filmed and the music scene of which provides the backdrop for the characters, and to the couples played, in various incarnations, by Mara, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Cate Blanchett.

Gosling and Mara play struggling songwriters in Austin, with a tortured romance befitting the description. Fassbender is a music mogul who takes passionate interest in them: a brotherly, mentorly, and, eventually, jealous one in the former; a sexual, intense, and at times even father-like one in the latter. Portman plays a waitress who both beguiles and distracts Fassbender. Blanchett, a similar role with Gosling.

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Already a stacked A-list cast, it’s worth noting that who’s in the film and who isn’t has been a subject of scrutiny heading into the SXSW premiere, considering Malick has been known to leave huge stars on the cutting room floor.

To that end, Christian Bale, who was an originally billed cast member, doesn’t make it into the film, with The Wrap reporting that his character was too similar to Fassbender to ultimately make sense. Benicio Del Toro and Girl on the Train breakout Haley Bennett, who also spent time in Austin shooting with Malick, aren’t seen in the picture.

It speaks to the unique and, depending on who you are, either maddening or fascinating style in which Malick structures his narrative that entire characters and actors who spent four weeks on set filming can be snipped out of the movie with no catastrophic repercussions to the story.

On the other hand, the film is a thrilling spot-the-cameo exercise with real-life rockers playing themselves, including Iggy Pop, members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, uh, Val Kilmer, whose presence might have gotten the biggest reaction of the entire screening. Patti Smith has a stirring, much larger role than the other musicians, doing warm, earthy work as a confidante for Mara’s character on matters of love and music.

“I told myself: any experience is better than no experience. I wanted to live, song to song,” Mara’s character says in early voice-over.

And then, minutes later, as we see her pulled in very different ways to the two men who make up her love triangle—the powerful walking pheromone of Fassbender’s mogul and Gosling’s irresistible Gosling-esque everyman—“I thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.”

While certainly more structured and, for all its time-hopping, linear than we’re used to from Malick, it can be hard to glean a romantic arc from any of the relationships, other than a general mood of how these characters use sex, betrayal, and passion to inextricably tie themselves to each other while also prevent them from happy endings.

It’s told stream-of-consciousness style, much like the ways you evaluate the mistakes, joys, heartbreaks, hotness, and regret from your own relationships. And like that kind of recollection, the way the story unfolds can be infuriating, can be a rather gorgeous patchwork of the spectrum of emotion that defines a love, and can also be rather unreliable as a narrative device.

And so we have steamy cutaways of sex. Glimpses at lovers’ quarrels. A cinematographer who didn’t meet a woman’s navel he didn’t love to zoom in on, and a tangled web of relationships told in even more entangled fits and starts. Plus lingering shots of Rooney Mara’s face and Ryan Gosling’s biceps lit by the natural light of magic hour.

Maybe it’s boring. Maybe it’s provocative. But it’s beautiful.

There’s a playfulness that manifests itself differently in each of the main actors. Fassbender is more brutish, Gosling has his perennial grin, and Mara is the manic pixie dream girl without the self-confidence to ever consider herself a dream.

That energy is mostly sidelined for brooding. Brooding in twilight. Brooding in bed. Brooding while staring out windows, while watching performers on stage, while lounging by a seemingly infinite number of infinity pools.

That’s the Malick style of performance, though: sometimes you can’t be sure if you’re watching an auteur’s next great work or a fairly well-done perfume commercial.

It’s Portman, though, who gets to explode. As Fassbender’s paramour, she thrusts herself from struggling waitress to seductive vixen to startled and scared captive, addicted to the adrenaline provided by his lifestyle, his money, his sex, and his drugs.

It’s interesting to watch following her lead turn in Jackie, a masterful feat of control and calibration of pitch, body, and emotion in every scene of the film. She’s only a supporting player here, but it’s her role as collateral damage to a life lived song to song that leaves you momentarily silenced.

And that’s the thing about Song to Song, a so-called rock and roll love story in the Malick way: with precious little dialogue to guide you, it is a love story told in silences, lingering glances, and, in essence, feeling.

You’re supposed to infer the conversations, the living that took place during those silences. That’s the story. That’s the movie. That’s your movie. And that’s your frustration. But at the very least it’s yours.

If that paragraph seems insufferable to you, you’ll hate Song to Song. If it seems lovely, it often is. But like any song—and certainly any great love, for that matter—don’t expect consensus on its merits.