Terrence Malick, who used to average barely more than a movie a decade, has suddenly become prolific. And so we have To the Wonder a year after his magnificent The Tree of Life. Alas with increased speed has come decreased quality. While dealing with similar subject matter, To the Wonder lacks the essential underpinning of plot and dialogue its predecessor had and gives us little more than murmured phrases and swirling images, which, even with the mesmerizing style of a master filmmaker, are not enough to sustain a viewer over 112 minutes of screen time. Though Wonder is more simply a love story and Tree of Life was about families and generations (and everything else), again Malick spends a lot of time on a relationship gone wrong. He continues to rely on frequently gorgeous but also very distracting camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki, circling people dreamily (sometimes cutting off their heads or up very close), with very rapid cutting. It makes for an awesome and beautiful trailer. But this time anything like Tree’s underpinning of focus on the Texas family in the Fifties and Sixties, and particularly Brad Pitt’s intense dialogue scenes with his sons, is quite lacking. The worst thing about this new film is that it can make Tree of Life look bad in retrospect, because Malick seems to be parodying his own style. Maybe Malick needs to stop and rethink. But with three other projects already lined up that doesn’t seem likely.
I agree with Mike D’Angelo’s tweet from Toronto: “Can Malick’s late, glancing style sustain its magic for the entirety of a simple love-lost tale? Almost.” Certainly the film has moments when the emotion breaks through. But I also feel the same keen disappointment as David Denby of The New Yorker. He points out that Affleck as the unnamed lover “has virtually no dialogue, nothing he can play, though he has a job, of sorts.” His character visits polluted towns; but his function and attitude are moot. This movie is bad for Affleck, bringing out his stiff, stolid side. Marina (Olga Kurylenko of Quantum of Solace) is the girlfriend he brings to the States from Paris with her ten-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline). This follows a soggy car trip to Mont Saint Michel (“to the wonder,” à la merveille— all Marina’s murmurings are in French) where, as in Paris also, they moon and kiss and murmur and stare, like young lovers.
Malick seems again to see love between the sexes as something that happens intensely as between teenagers and then falls apart in a relationship. But he sets this up, creating circumstances that are doomed. Marina is understandably unhappy once she gets to the prison yard complex of odd mini-McMansions Neil (as the credits call Affleck) takes her to in Oklahoma. She is out of her element (whatever that is, exactly) and seems stuck at home. Little Tatiana goes to the local school (which looks immaculate, like the local airport) and comes back saying (in French) “I have no friends. In Paris I had lots” (“j’en avais plein”). “We must leave here,” she murmurs. So that’s that.
And Marina never has anything to do, except spin around outdoors, in Oklahoma as she did in France, with “her head thrown back and her arms lifted to heaven,” in which Denby suggests “She seems to be imitating Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life.” Indeed. But Chastain played with the boys in the front yard. And that front yard was friendly, and had neighbours. Malick’s Texas (his own place of origin) had a personal sense of place. His France and Oklahoma don’t.
This time most of the voiceover dialogue whispered or murmured in French, one begins to think of Marguerite Duras, whose many screenplays are full of such meditative, poetic and philosophical phrases. Think of Hiroshima Mon Amour. But Duras’ meditations also tell stories. Marina has no backstory, and her scenes with “Neil” are just wordless tableaux. They never sit down and have a conversation. Their trip to Oklahoma is based on ten minutes of travelogue swirling and smooching in Paris and Mont Saint Michel.
It’s not surprising that Malick has a proclivity for nearly empty houses (he shows than in Tree of Life and in several houses here). They are doubtless symbols for undeveloped relationships. In Oklahoma, Marina has nothing particular to do. “Neil” is away a lot touring polluted towns. Anyway, her visa runs out (an intrusion of reality), and “Neil” does not offer to take steps to allow her to continue, so she leaves. After she is gone, “Neil” takes up with an old school classmate, Rachel McAdams, a beautiful young blonde woman, and they swirl around and make love for a while. She has virtually no dialogue, but as usual, more than “Neil” gets. It was said that Brad Pitt got screwed by how skimpy his part in Tree of Life wound up being. But in his scenes with the boys he made his part tremendous. Poor Affleck never gets that chance.
While all this is going on there is another thread, to introduce the element of spiritual questing that was woven all through The Tree of Life, but is extraneous and almost inexplicable here, even lame. Somewhere in the area there’s is a very glum Spanish Catholic priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Bardem’s low murmured voiceovers are in Spanish, of course. Bardem looks bad, overweight and hair sticking up — Denby says he’s having “another bad hair day.” His dialogue is all about the shoulds and coulds of God and love. He doesn’t seem to be very convinced and is certainly not having a good time. One of the parishioners suggests he may need help. Oddly, though the big church is usually nearly empty, we see someone talk about how busy the parish is. But maybe that’s a different parish. Father Quintana seems to be wandering the TV series ‘Treme” or Spike Lee’s Katrina epic. The use here of people who’re clearly really very poor or unwell is somewhat disturbing, using them just as trappings of Quintana’s spiritual crisis. Anyway, despite the effort in Bardem’s monologues to tie romantic and spiritual love — if you want to preach, bring in a preacher — his segments have nothing narratively to do with the main story, even if the two threads wander together in a scene.
Marina leaves. Then she reports, oddly, that she wants to come back to Oklahoma, and Tatiana is back with her biological father, and returns to “Neil,” who’s been in a nicer, old house, but now moves back to an empty McMansion. She isn’t happy — is that any surprise? — despite some swirling around and kissing and handsomely photographed sex. She has a one-nighter with a carpenter (or at least he has some lumber in his pickup), which “Neil” discovers and dumps her out on the highway. Things are on and off but eventually Marina goes back to Paris. To what? To the wonder? The End.
There is material here for several movies, if there were dialogue and a storyline. But there aren’t and the result is disappointing. As Denby says, this is something “only a major filmmaker” could have made — its beautiful and distinctive — but “nothing adds up.”
To the Wonder debuted at Venice, and opened in the UK and France in February and March, respectively. In London Peter Finch of the Guardian called it “a vague and rambling disappointment” and in Paris the critical response was poor (Allociné press rating a meagre 2.8). Les Inrocks noted the “peerless” Malick’s danger of skating on the edge “between genius and fakery”; Cahiers his weakness, fatal here, of falling into cliché. Everyone knows he’s capable of greatness. Limited US release 12 April 2013. Stateside reaction seems more positive. Variety provides reviews by three of its critics, only one negative.
DIRECTOR: TERRENCE MALICK
WRITERS: TERRENCE MALICK
STARS: BEB AFKECK, OLGA KURYLENKO, RACHEL MCADAMS, TATIANA CHILNE
RUNTIME: 105 MIN