To The Wonder | Director Terrence Malick | Score: 4.0
It seems as if no filmmaker in history has spent more time in the woods than Terrence Malick. His films evoke the crosscurrent of nature and its interaction with mankind with an almost singular zeal. He is known for his terse, lyric storytelling — his last film Tree of Life was a near-masterpiece of small subtleties, epic sprawl and a cinematic vivaciousness that left the viewer completely enthralled and curious (or, conversely, totally disengaged and bored to tears, but that’s another story).
His enigmatic new film — a sort of rumination on love and temperance — leaves so much else unsaid and out of the frame, as it were, he gives us precious little to draw from other than his unique camera work and the physical beauty of his cast. He wants to tell us the story of a doomed romance with as little cumbersome connective tissue as possible, but like a minimalist architect who finally just does away with walls and a roof altogether, he’s stripped it so far down, he’s almost entirely cut out our interest.
The film begins, we are to believe, at the start of a love affair between the reticent Neil (Ben Affleck, who for all his screen time perhaps says 2 or 3 full sentences the entire film), an American visiting Paris, and a gorgeous Ukrainian woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who has a lovely 10-year-old daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). The couple cavort in fields, dance in the streets, playfully wrestle in the sand of a French beach, and climb up the steps of an old, medieval castle in Mont Saint-Michel to look out over the land and deeply into each other’s eyes. In soft VO (another device Malick used to good effect in his previous film), we hear Marina’s voice questioning the power and sustain of their love, even as they live the life of a couple in a particularly high-end fragrance commercial.
Soon enough, they’ve moved to the States, into a hideous ranch house in an Oklahoma subdivision, and, unsurprisingly, the couple is having trouble. We know this because we see snippets of anger and fury between them, see the cold way they interact, and before long, Marina’s visa is over and she returns to Paris with her daughter.
Meanwhile, Neil meets Jane (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful rancher, and embarks on a carbon copy affair — substituting the dreary flat fields of the U.S. plains for the French countryside — with the exact same recriminating result. At this point, Marina, deciding at last that there’s nothing for her in Paris (!), gets married to Neil back in the States and predictably encounters many of the same issues as before.
As a sort of storytelling subplot, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a Catholic priest living in town, experiences the exquisite suffering of his faith, helping people in need while he himself begins the question the existence of his creator.
Just what all this means is readily open to interpretation, but what it matters to the viewer is decidedly less certain. Malick’s style, honed down to its substantial essence in Life, is to offer small pieces of scenes strung together with faint snatches of dialogue, leaving it up to us to fill in all the missing information. It’s an informal, non-linear style that emphasizes the interior nature of our consciousness at the almost total expense of story.
When it works, it operates under our direct gaze, opening portals in our subconscious that drive into the very basics of how we internalize sensation and emotion. Life was as moving and powerful as it was because it incorporated this technique with a child’s POV, interpreting everything through a young mind not yet able to decipher any of the codes and morays between their parents and the world around them.
When it doesn’t, such as here, the effect is laborious, pretentious and, it must be said, melodramatically skimming along the surface of its characters — precisely the opposite of Malick’s intentions. If Tree of Life was a wonder of compression of time and form, a lifespan that told the movie and a whole new way which enthralled some and left others either completely grasping at straws or shuddering and frustration, this is almost precisely the converse. It’s almost as if Malik is attempting to answer the critics that claimed his previous masterwork was pointless and confusing: If you didn’t like that one, he’s saying, try this on for size.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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