** (2 stars)
wd - Terrence Malick
ph – Emmanuel Lubezki
pd – Jack Fisk
m – Hanan Townshend
ed – A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa
cos – Jacqueline West
p – Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chiline
Terrence Malick was born from that post-Bonnie-&-Clyde-pre-Star-Wars period of American filmmakers who secretly (or sometimes not so) had a prime directive of challenging the convention of the American cinema. But in particular with Malick, this was obvious. Even his first film, Badlands (1973), exhibited a queerly capricious eye of time and space. It, along with Days of Heaven (1978), are two of greatest films ever made.
His succeeding films, all brilliant, exposed a compulsion in him; a compulsion to understand. What people love to prattle when categorizing Mr Malick is the fact that he has gained such an immense level of artistic clout and respect yet in the last four decades he has only completed five films. This is the mark of a true artist. Now his sixth film arises, To the Wonder, which might be his most hypothetical picture to date.
The story will now be delineated, though it is not the film’s foremost concern. An American, Neil (apparently that’s his name), meets a Ukrainian divorcee, Marina, and ultimately her small daughter, in France. They spend a great deal of time around Mont Saint-Michel, often called “the wonder of the western world.” He convinces them to come back to America, specifically Oklahoma, where their affair cools. Marina goes to see a priest with whom she divulges her bitter regret. She goes back to France. Neil gets back together with an old flame, Jane, and all seems well for a while – until Marina returns. Neil is played by Ben Affleck, Marina by Olga Kurylenko, Jane by Rachel McAdams and the priest by Javier Bardem.
With each subsequent film, Malick has given his stories less and less attention. In To the Wonder he gives almost none. The dialogue, sometimes in subtitles, is minimal and quite silly. It is heavy on narration (no surprise there), which is always spoken is hushed tones. The film runs for 113 minutes and many stretches are ill conceived. But what remains most affecting is Malick’s reach. He purely formulated this tier-lack-of-narrative to give himself a succession of plates for the countenance of sensations and emotions. One struggles to recall any film that has such a gall in its presentation of the sheer alterations of love. And presentation is the word here, despite not usually being associated with deepness.
As always, Malick’s technique is striking. He once again has the great Emmanuel Lubezki at his side, employing his characteristic deep-focus photography that is staggering. Together, they give us an abundance of sunsets, blowing curtains, water hoses, swimming pools, bed sheets, tall grass and many, many instances of women twirling. Most of those moments have some kind of motion in them, persons or camera, and you are presented, not with glimmers but with a cinematic whole. The church, the fields, a supermarket, a beach, flocks of bison, even herds of horses in which every single individual hair of each horse is visible. Also are his gaggle of editors, deciphering through hours and hours of footage, sometimes infamously resulting in entire stories and characters being removed completely. It’s all an amalgamation of the cinematic soul that he possesses.
Despite all this, many have found this Malick effort to be a disappointing failure. Personally, I feel this says more about the critics themselves than the film. One other reason would be the pesky expectation paradox, considering this film is following The Tree of Life (2011), a masterpiece and what some may even consider his best film. To the Wonder’s biggest problem is Malick’s biggest problem in general, which his performers and his crew often appear to be making separate films. Consistently throughout To the Wonder actors appear to be either bored or uncomfortable. There was no script that was used during filming. Malick would give the actors pages of thoughts and independent lines every morning and he would ask them to play the emotions without speaking; only using their body. A suspicious method to say the least.
Although of all six of his films this would undoubtedly rank sixth, the experience of experiencing To the Wonder remains such a flourish of ambiance that one can’t help but be grateful for. It would be rather peculiar to say that one would like to see all or many films presented this way, but we have Terrence Malick and that’s enough.