Film Reviews

To The Wonder Terrence Malick

Rating - 7/10

Who would have guessed that the next Terrence Malick film would come so soon? After returning from a two decade hiatus, every film has been followed by a 6 or 7 year wait, but To The Wonder has arrived only a year and a half after The Tree of Life was released, and Malick has reportedly already finished production on another film and is working on yet another. Should we be afraid of a drop in quality?

If To The Wonder is anything to go by, yes and no. The Tree of Life was nothing short of a landmark, a visionary montage that sought to place an individual within the cosmos and come to terms with the existential gravitas separating them. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and ranked 102nd on Sight & Sound’s recent poll of the best films of all time—the highest of any Malick films and 3rd for 21st century films (behind David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love). To The Wonder is not that good. But then, when Malick does something that’s a misstep, it still has the capacity to be wonderful, with rollercoaster highs balanced by occasional pretensions or messy details. Malick’s increasingly radical aesthetic, dominated by free-form cameras, cutaways and lingering shots on nature, and close attention to the human face has rarely been replicated (let alone replicated well) and can be downright breathtaking.

The story, if you are seriously thinking about going to a Terrence Malick movie for it, concerns a man (Ben Affleck) spontaneously moving with his lover (Olga Kurylenko, who radiates love pretty much whenever the camera is on her) and her daughter to suburban America and the ensuing drama with her visa, another woman (Rachel McAdams), and maybe something going on with the water. The water seems to be an embodiment of something wrong with present-day Suburban America, and there is perhaps no image more jarring in Malick’s career than one early in To The Wonder of a Sonic’s parking lot, further suggesting something being, for lack of a better word, “wrong.” The European landscapes that precede America, however, are beautifully shot and evocative, and some snowy/icy scenes show that Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot The Tree of Life and The New World) can bring out the beauty in any natural landscape.

The suburbs look great, too, but there is something anachronistic about the America on camera; To The Wonder could just as well be taking place in the ‘50s as in the present; only an HDTV in the background and a short scene shot on an iPhone push against the abundance of post-war Suburbia images, and the film’s narration (mostly by Olga Kurylenko, but also Javier Bardem, who plays a priest) is spoken of in the past tense, evoking distant memories, not contemporary settings. The whole film seems to take place out of time, so it’s hard to see what exactly is “wrong” with the American suburbs, or if that is even the impression being imprinted at all.

In fact, Affleck’s character never feels like a full character at all. He is more of a vessel for other characters to project their thoughts and emotions. The fling between Affleck’s and McAdams’ characters could just as well be Kurylenko’s imagined happenings or an alternate-timeline possibility as reality. That relationship drags the story as a result, but for all the intense close-ups and bright lights on Affleck, he is never given a chance to really perform, he stands instead as some abstract representation of family and American Dream, twisting and spiraling itself out of control, as someone chasing a family or dream. In a filmography characterized by curious depictions of character, montage, and narration, this one stands out as particularly radical and thus particularly thought provoking.

The air of abstraction created by Affleck and Malick’s aesthetic lends to the characters’ search for love, which is made explicit in poetic, humanistic narrations that, slightly too often, feel forced and unclear, like poor or unsuccessful more than they feel stylized. It’s a forgivable sin, of course; most of the search is through visuals, and that so many of these scenes take place, like Days of Heaven, during the “Golden Hour” gives the constant feeling that the characters are on the verge of epiphany. They never reach it, though; characters are overcome with doubt and uncertainty, and so they turn to religion and Bardem’s sermon. These sermons offer advice but rarely amount to enough for the characters, much like the search for love. It’s a much darker search than the memory-filled The Tree of Life, and while its conclusions are much less confident, it’s a search that often finds the beauty it deserves. There are plenty of distractions, with scenes narrated by and focusing on Bardem being particularly evident of the initial scope of the project (which cut Barry Pepper, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, and Badlands star Michael Sheen entirely). The amount of film shot for To The Wonder is evident, but it looks like Malick was never quite able to make the film he wanted. This gives To The Wonder a tendency to wander aimlessly, but it’s distinctly autumnal look and feel overpowers the flaws.

All in all, it’s impressive if not entirely effective, beautiful but not terribly articulate. It’s a brilliant director working at his most ambitious but also, arguably, his least successful. That isn’t anything to worry about, however, because Malick at his least successful is able to pack more points of interest and stunning shots into a movie than most directors can get out of their careers. There’s a lot to think about in To The Wonder, and that’s quite alright.