Malick's latest 'To the Wonder' a halfhearted sketch of rehashed dynamics
You could never accuse filmmaker and master craftsman Terrence Malick of oversaturating the marketplace. There's never been any less than a five-year interval between the six films he's made in the last 40 years (and usually much longer)—until now. Hot on the sprockets of The Tree of Life, from 2011, comes Malick's latest, To The Wonder. And now we know once and for all why he should never, ever be rushed.
To the Wonder plays like a series of outtakes from the previous film. Once again, there is a young woman with lots of hair (Olga Kurylenko) given to twirling round and round bathed in sunlight, often with lengths of windblown sheer chiffon billowing across her face. Once again, she is partnered by a stoic male presence (Ben Affleck), who, although less dangerous than Brad Pitt's father/husband in Tree of Life, gives every appearance of being quite the killjoy. Yet again, they are stranded together somewhere out on the lone prair-ee (in this case, suburban Oklahoma), trying and mostly failing to sync up with each other.
It's as if Malick didn't have time to invent new characters, so decided instead to recycle the same elemental female vs. uptight male dynamics from the last film. It's meant to be an impressionistic tone poem about the ebb and flow of love, but these cardboard figures in a landscape we neither know or care anything about seem incapable of so strong an emotion. (It's up to the stirring music of Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part to provide any emotional context.) As usual, such thoughts or feelings as the characters have are only expressed in interior monologues, never in conversation; it's no wonder they can't get along if they never talk to each other.
To backtrack here for a minute, let me say I think Malick's 2005 film, The New World, was the best movie of its decade. But in that tale of English Puritan settlers and Native American tribal societies encountering each other for the first time in the first European colony in Virginia, the chaotic impressionism and interior monologue devices worked brilliantly. With two cultures unable to communicate with each other verbally, the viewer was plunged into the eerie strangeness of first contact, exactly as the people involved must have experienced it—sensory, frightening, rapturous and exalted.
But in a modern context like To the Wonder, the characters' refusal to enunciate their desires or concerns to each other seems like sheer cussedness. Of course, what we hear of their interior streams-of-consciousness never adds up to much, anyway. The American man and the European woman (they don't seem to have names, much less personalities) meet in France and spend some idyllic time in Paris laughing, running, twirling, and twining in various sexual configurations before he brings her and her little daughter back to Oklahoma.
He works for the EPA, inspecting a massive development site busily raping the land. She does nothing but fret that something seems to be "missing" in her new life. (Yes, Paris, we want to scream.) Her visa expires and she leaves, and an all-American blonde (Rachel McAdams) comes on the scene (Americana personified, with her ranch and herd of buffalo). But she disappears when the first woman comes back for more angst and malaise. The problem is none of these people have any history or dreams or goals to individualize them. They simply are, and the mere fact that they exist is not enough to sustain our interest, much less care about them or their problems. (Whatever they may be; they don't talk, so we have no clue what draws them together or drives them apart.)
Meanwhile, poor Javier Bardem is also stranded in the town as a morose priest who has lost his faith. All of his interior monologues are addressed to God as he shuffles about on his rounds among the poor, the sick the lame, desperate to rekindle his sense of spiritual joy. With his gorgeous visuals—sunlight, clouds, sky, water—Malick wants us to discover spiritual joy in the natural world, and that's fine. But it will take more than this halfhearted cinematic sketch to rekindle my faith in Malick as a visionary storyteller.
TO THE WONDER
★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick.
A Magnolia release. Rated R. 112 minutes.
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