Review: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’ looks great but says little

One thing is increasingly clear:  Terrence Malick is a man on a very specific aesthetic mission.

When I was at Cannes in the summer of 2011, there was no film that was more heavily discussed or anticipated before it screened than “The Tree Of Life.”  I felt like I was lucky to be there for the film, and there was a sense that everyone had made it their top priority for the festival.  The discussions afterwards were intense and ongoing all week, and I dare say no other film was covered quite as extensively during that fest.

Here in Toronto this week, though, I’ve gotten none of that surrounding the debut of “To The Wonder,” Malick’s new movie, and in the few conversations I’ve had with other people, it seems like the notion that he’s got two more films coming in the next year or so and another major ongoing one in development has made him “just another filmmaker” as opposed to the figurative Sasquatch of Cinema that he was for so long.  I’m thrilled he’s suddenly found this new productivity and that he’s got a producing team in place who are able to help him realize all of this newfound creative energy, but it does mean that it’s less of an event now.  There’s a reason the world rarely freaks out at the news that there’s a Woody Allen film coming out.  Something that happens every eleven months or so is not particularly noteworthy, no matter what the final film turns out to be.

“To The Wonder” is far more linear as a piece of storytelling than “The Tree of Life” was, but like that film, it leans heavily on a familiar bag of stylistic tics, and there can be no mistaking this for the work of anyone but Terrence Malick.  While there is very little in the way of conventional dialogue in the film, there is almost always someone speaking in voice-over.  The film begins with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) traveling together in Europe.  They are in the early days of a love affair, and there is a constant tactile connection between the two of them.  Marina is the one who narrates most of the film, and she is obviously ready to start a life with Neil.  She has a pre-teen daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from a first marriage, though, and Neil doesn’t seem ready to commit to something permanent.  He asks her to try coming to the US with him for a while, so she packs up her daughter and joins him in Oklahoma, where he works collecting soil and water samples to test for chemical impurities.

For a big stretch of the film, we just watch Marina and Neil and Tatiana try to settle into something like a normal life, and there are moments where it seems to be working.  Tatiana, like most girls her age, runs hot and cold at a moment’s notice, sometimes thrilled to be in the US and smitten with Neil, sometimes sullen and angry and adamant that he is not her father.  Neil lives his whole life with a sense of emotional reserve, and it makes Mariana crazy.  At least, that’s how I read what I was watching.  Because we hear so little of what transpires between them, you’re left with suggestions, the ghosts of performances.  Affleck comes across largely as a blank here, but I have a hard time blaming him because I have no idea how he was in any of the actual dialogue scenes with Kurylenko.  There’s also a priest in their community who is suffering from a feeling of disconnection from God, played by Javier Bardem, and every so often, Malick just cuts to ten minutes or so of Father Quintana questioning his faith while dealing with what appear to be real people struggling with poverty and other issues.  Eventually, it’s too much for Mariana, and she leaves the US with her daughter, which is when Neil runs into Jane (Rachel McAdams) a girl he used to know who has grown into a woman who seems to be far more grounded and centered than Mariana.

When I say that Malick is pursuing a very particular aesthetic at this point, it almost feels like self-parody.  I felt that way during parts of “The Tree Of Life,” but it’s much more pronounced now.  Kurylenko is forced to whisper truly ridiculous voice-over dialogue that pretty much all boils down to “What is this love beyond love?  Is it love? Do we love that we can love, or do we love so we know love?  Love is love.  Have I mentioned love?”  There’s a good hour of that, most of it accompanied by gorgeously photographed images of Kurylenko walking through wheat fields or tall grass, spinning in circles and dancing.  In fact, that’s pretty much all she does.  She’s either crawling seductively towards Affleck, spinning, or dancing.  Or fighting, but that comes later.  When McAdams enters the film, she seems like she’s being established as an opposite to Marina… until she also starts to wander through wheat fields and tall grass while spinning.  Maybe I’ve been hanging out with the wrong women my whole life, but I don’t know anyone who spins this much.  Instructors in spin classes don’t spin this much.  If you put the opening of “Sound Of Music” on a loop for two hours, Julie Andrews wouldn’t spin this much.  It makes the women seem like advertisements for what Malick thinks women should be like, not like actual characters or people, and it gets truly annoying at a certain point.

While the Affleck/McAdams/Kurylenko storyline does resolve itself in something like a conventional manner, sort of, I remain puzzled by Bardem’s place in the film completely.  He’s in a different movie, and I’d honestly like to see what that movie is.  His discussions with God about faith, his struggles to reconcile the suffering he sees with the beliefs that guide him… there’s potent material in there.  But at best, we get a cursory nod to those ideas, and then it’s back into the story of the stone-faced guy who sort of loves two women who spin a lot.  Lots of pensive standing around, both people staring into the distance in different directions.  Lots of gorgeous landscapes.  There are a few scenes late in the film where drama starts to rear its ugly head, but Malick quickly chokes the pulse back out of the film until he finally is able to resolve it with a shot that not only literalizes the film’s title, but also makes the startlingly unsubtle point that we are always chasing the passion that comes at the start of relationships.  If that’s the big idea that this entire film was built to support, it seems like a long way to go for very little payoff.

As usual, it is a spectacularly beautiful film, and Emmanuel Lubezki seems to have perfected the particular shooting style that Malick is chasing, a sort of dreamy free-roaming omniscient eye that will often wander away from whoever’s thoughts we’re hearing in search of a detail like a bug on a blade of grass or the light coming through a window.  It is visually ravishing, and there is a hypnotic quality to the cutting style, the overall rhythm of the movie.  In addition, I think Kurylenko seems to be doing interesting work, even though much of it was cut out, and she’s luminous here, gorgeous and interesting, and McAdams is the same way.  But I’d be lying if I said I felt like there was enough here.  I think Malick’s first two films remain his best work because they married his aesthetic concerns with real character work and genuine drama and a sense that they had something to say.  Even knowing how much he changed “The Thin Red Line” between shooting and release, I still feel like that works as a movie, and that the flourishes that distinguish the film as Malick’s are what elevate it instead of being the entire point of the thing.  I found “To The Wonder” to be, ultimately, somewhat tedious, and I hate feeling that way about a new film from Malick.  But I’m not going to just pretend that there’s more going on here because of his reputation, nor do I think hiring a great D.P. means nothing else about your film is important.  If this is all Malick does for the rest of his career, and we’ll see with these next two films if he’s still got other tricks in his bag, then I might not be able to actively call myself a Malick fan.  That is perhaps the single most depressing movie-related thought I’ve had all year.

“To The Wonder” is currently seeking US distribution.  Good luck with that.

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