THERE’S something to be said for being a work-shy enigma. Terrence Malick used to be one of those, but since Tree of Life in 2011, he’s been endangering his own mystique with his increasingly prolific output. Song to Song (****) – which gets its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend – is his third release in 12 months and while no new Malick film is a ever a waste of time (well, maybe that Ben Affleck one), he’s not immune to the law of diminishing returns. Which is to say, Song to Song’s wispy, semi-improvised, abstract meditation on love and music and living in the moment will likely test the patience of even seasoned festival audiences.
And yet, there’s also something hypnotic about his continued determination to challenge what a film can be by abandoning plot in favour of dreamy images and whispered interior monologues that better reflect the emotional journeys of his characters. This one is set against the vibrant music scene of Austin, Texas and follows four characters – musicians BV and Faye (Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara), record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) – as they fall in and out of love and try to make sense of their various existential crises. Even writing that makes it sound like something to scorn, but witnessing a 70-something filmmaker earnestly feeling his way through the modern world instead of dogmatically dismissing it feels like a radical act worth embracing.
It’s certainly preferable to Modern Life is Rubbish (*), which uses the British indie music scene as the backdrop for an excruciating romantic dramedy. Charting a young couple’s disintegrating relationship via their shared love of music, the film is named for Blur’s second album and comes littered with cringe-worthy references to various indie mainstays of the last 25 years, mainly so the infuriating protagonist (Josh Whitehouse) can sound off about consumerism and digital downloads while pursuing his own dreams of rock stardom by churning out drippy adolescent indie dirges that make The Kooks look like Iggy Pop. Of course, he’s supposed to be a bit of a self-righteous whiner, but the film makes him so insufferable it’s impossible to see why Freya Mavor’s aspiring graphic designer would ever fall for him. Consequently, she just ends up being annoying by association, something amplified by the film’s conception of young women as marriage and baby obsessed killjoys. It’s tedious in the extreme – and that’s before the knuckle-gnawing redemptive ending, which plays out like a cinematic cover version of the finale of Elizabethtown. Yep, that’s right, the filmmakers don’t even have the sense to steal from a good Cameron Crowe movie.
Both Sweet Virginia (****) and The Oath (***) are solid examples of the sort of genre efforts that traditionally pop up on the festival circuit. The former is an especially promising showcase for its Canadian director Jamie M Dagg and its British screenwriters Benjamin and Paul China. Revolving around an ex-rodeo champ (Jon Bernthal) who unwittingly befriends a hitman (Christopher Abbot), the noir-inflected script bears the unmistakable influence of those other filmmaking siblings, the Coen brothers, particularly in its examination of the unpredictable ways violence pollutes small-town life and stains the souls of all those who engage with it. But there’s enough directorial flair to help the film transcend such influences and the cast do strong work, with Bernthal excellent as a quiet man whose days of literally and figuratively taking the bull by the horns far behind him, and Abbot also great as the killer whose last shreds of humanity make him an even more unpredictable presence.
By contrast, Icelandic thriller The Oath is a more straightforwardly plotted genre piece about a doctor’s increasingly desperate attempts to save his downward-spiraling daughter from her drug-dealer boyfriend. The film is the latest from writer/director Baltasar Kormakur, whose home-grown projects (Jar City, The Deep) tend to be more satisfying than his big-budget American efforts (he made 2 Guns and Everest). This one – in which he also plays the ethically challenged lead – feels like a bridge between the two: its occasional predictability offset by slick pacing, sleek visuals and a willingness to leave a question mark hanging over the protagonist as he puts his training to uses for which it was never intended. Australian wilderness thriller Killing Ground (***) also features a doctor as a main character and also uses the profession to question traditional notions of masculinity as a young medic (Ian Meadows) and his new fiancé (Harriet Dyer) find themselves caught up in a nightmare scenario while on a lakeside camping trip. Writer/director Damien Power sets the film apart with a clever structure that results in a chilling reveal midway through. It’s just a shame he hasn’t also found a way to ratchet up the film’s considerable tension without victimising the female characters
The Edinburgh Film Festival runs until 2 July