I used to look forward to his infrequent visits. Sure, sometimes he was a little obtuse and over stayed his welcome, but more often than not he was alluringly enigmatic. Then he started coming around more often and, well, maybe the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt is true.
For most of his career he was a tease, a mythic J.D. Salinger type who burst on the scene in a blinding flash of brilliance, made two of the best films of the 1970s, then left us hanging. Like spurned lovers we waited for him to return for two decades and at first were happy to see him again. He told wondrous stories about personal connections and the nature of relationships.
Then he started repeating himself. In the beginning I didn’t mind but soon his whispered philosophical asides became tiresome and I began to look for reasons to avoid him.
Now I have one.
It’s been said that the essence of cinema is beautiful people saying interesting things. In his new film Malick gets it half right, parading good-looking heart throbs like Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman around in a pointless exercise called “Song to Song.”
Fassbender plays a Machiavellian a record producer who uses his wealth and power to seduce those around him, including aspiring musician Mara, rising star Gosling and waitress-turned-wife Portman. The willowy women and mumbling men run barefoot through the loose story—which often feels cobbled together from scraps of film found on the editing room floor—pondering philosophical questions in hushed tones. “How do you know when you were lying to yourself?” they whisper. “Is any experience is better than no experience?” All the while Malick’s camera, light as a feather, floats above it all capturing his puzzling whims. For the entire running time nobody looks like they’re having any fun even when they’re dancing, being goofy or laughing. They’re not having any fun and neither will you.
Airy and disjointed, it’s a collage of feelings and shards of life strung together on a fractured timeline. Malick indulges himself to the point that the film is less a movie and more like an experience, like going to “Laser Floyd.”
There are highlights. Val Kilmer singing to a festival crowd, “I got some uranium! I bought it off my mom!” before hacking off his hair with a giant Bowie knife is a memorable moment and cameos from Patti Smith and John Lydon are welcome, but at its heart “Song to Song” is a movie about people trying to connect that keeps its audience at arms length.
There’s a quick shot of a tattoo in the movie that sums up my feelings toward my relationship with Malick. Written in flowery script, the words “Empty Promises” fill the screen, reminding us of the promise of the director’s early work and amplifying the disappointment we feel today. “Song to Song” is the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Terrence Malick movie that put me off Terrence Malick movies.
I’ll be nice though and say, it’s not him, it’s me.