Terrence Malick used to make good movies. Badlands is terrific. Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are all good. The Tree of Life is overindulgent and almost plotless, but at least it’s nice to look at. Then To the Wonder came out and it sucked because it was neither interesting nor pretty. Song to Song doubles down on that approach, so it’s nearly unbearable.
There’s not much in the way of a plot. Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) is a rich music producer and one of the biggest assholes you can imagine. He’s obsessed with showing off, having women, being miserable, and making others miserable. He’s the kind of guy who buys a Ferrari and parks it across multiple spots in a way that makes you want to key it, slash the tires, smash it with a sledgehammer, and set it on fire with him inside. He’s signed BV (Ryan Gosling) to a songwriting contract in which they’re supposedly equal partners, but Cook gets all the credit and is the only one named in the copyrights. Faye (Rooney Mara) used to be one of Cook’s receptionists before she became a musician, and he wants her because he knows that she and BV are into each other. He pressures Rhonda (Natalie Portman) to be his wife by buying her with a house for her soon-to-be-evicted mother (Holly Hunter). And he continues to hire prostitutes and sleep with women attracted to his lifestyle.
No one in this movie says anything above the volume of a whisper, and no one has even the slightest shred of enthusiasm. With the dull plot full of unbearable characters, you’d at least hope that it’d be pretty, but that’s not the case at all. It looks like it was shot almost entirely with fisheye lenses, often times with lenses that look like they fisheye vertically rather than horizontally so that everything looks shorter than it is. At least once, they switch back and forth from different levels of fisheyeness for an even greater level of absurdity. And I’d be willing to overlook some of that if the shots had at least been interesting, but that’s not the case. So many of the characters look so similar, and the shots are so distorted, that it’s often difficult to tell who you’re looking at. There’s so much swooping back and forth and twirling of the camera that you might feel a little dizzy or nauseated. The beautiful things you’re supposed to be looking at are mostly just repugnant, garish displays of excess whose primary purpose is to make it clear that they cost a lot of money. I will say that it used a good depth of focus in most scenes so you can at least scour the background for something interesting when you don’t care about what’s going on in the foreground, but that too is mostly a fruitless endeavor.
The film is shot in and around Austin, but it’s so focused on clichéd locations (the skyline, various downtown locations, SxSW, the Hill Country, Mount Bonnell, etc.) that it’s surprising there’s no “waiting in line at Franklin’s Barbecue” scene, but maybe not even Terrence Malick has that much patience. It took so long to complete the film that there are shots of things that aren’t there anymore (like the shopping center with the old Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and Highball, which were demolished in 2012). And the film progresses at such an agonizingly slow pace, that’d have almost sworn that my watch kept stopping. It’s the kind of pretentious, meaningless garbage that you might expect of an overly ambitious film student, and I can’t imagine ever again willingly subjecting myself to another Malick film.