Directed By: Terrence Malick
Written By: Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing filmmakers going today. His eagerness to break away from the restraints of the classic narrative structure has allowed him to create films that are uniquely his own. Some view his style as pure genius, while others are still waking up from their viewing of The New World. His latest film To the Wonder will do little to subdue the great Malick debate, but even his greatest loyalist may find this outing to be an unsatisfying disappointment. For the first time Malick feels like a director who is only treading water. Fragments of Malick’s brilliance are overshadowed by the derivative nature of the film’s design. While Tree of Life used its abstract structure to approach grandiose questions about the meanings of life, To the Wonder is content dissecting shallow themes you could find in the middle of an average Hallmark greeting card.
In the film Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play a couple amidst a passionate love affair. As you would expect with Malick, the film has little interest in depicting the story of their relationship point by point. As an alternative you are placed inside an engaging experience. Searching for a through-line that connects everything would only bring out frustration. Comprehending what is occurring is certainty no issue, but understanding how sequence of events plays out could provide some difficulty. If you can remove yourself from that internal requirement you will be doing yourself a momentous favor.
Time goes by and we see their passionate love turned to passionate anger. Their own misgivings along with outside influences begin to put a damper on their feelings towards one another. Rachel McAdams plays a former friend Affleck’s character, who causes him to question his true feelings. Olga Kurylenko’s character finds solace in a depressed priest played by Javier Bardem. Malick uses all these relationships to explore the emotional impact of love, isolation, and infidelity. Each storyline is precisely interwoven into the next. The disillusionment of one character is not an isolated event, rather the beginning of a fast chain reaction.
Overall the performances are not given much room to breathe. You have little sense of most of the character’s inner workings. Affleck’s performance is the only one that stands out as he seems out of place the entire time. He walks aloof unaware of how he supposed to act. His face continuously has a look of constant confusion. Not helping matters, is the fact his voiceover sounds like his is evoking his inner Daredevil imitation. Clearly this is not a film that fits his talents. The rest of the cast does nothing to detract from the film, but they also don’t have much to work with. There were very few moments any of the actors felt in control.
One element you can always expect with a Malick film is a vast array of stunning visuals, and of course that continues here. He has the uncanny ability to take natural phenomenon and make it feel other worldly. Simply walking through a film of tall grass evokes a heavily atmosphere. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography delivers a fantastic visual buffet. It’s akin to watching an itinerant mosaic slowly crawl along the screen. Purely on a photography standpoint this film is stunning. Malick aids the visuals with a gauntlet of breathtaking camera techniques. He completely immerses you into this experience by keeping his camera constantly on the move.
However, by the time the first hour is over that impact subsides. Repeating the same style as Tree of Life did not help matters. It almost appears like Malick took leftover footage from Tree of Life and used it to construct this film. Even without considering his previous work, To the Wonder’s framing makes its progression tedious. Having such a limited scope constricted how far reaching it could take its ideals. Dialogue between characters is nearly nonexistent. Instead it reverts to Malick’s standard trademark of whispering voiceovers. Listening to characters reflect on the complexities of interpersonal relationships was a less than satisfying use of that technique. It would be like finding out Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting was really about his infatuation with the classic ‘pull-my-finger’ gag. Nothing new was ever offered-stylistically or philosophically. To the Wonder encapsulates what it means to go a long way in order to arrive at a very basic conclusion.