Terrence Malick, one of the most reclusive and captivating filmmakers to have ever lived, will be seventy years old later this year. With Old Father Time creeping down his neck, he has ramped up production on a string of back-to-back projects. It used to be that Malick only graced viewers with a film every five or twentyyes, twentyyears, his largest gap of inactivity being between 1978's mesmerizing "Days of Heaven" and 1998's graceful WWII hymn "The Thin Red Line
." No longer having this sort of time or luxury on his side, the filmmaker has seemingly expedited efforts that should have probably percolated a little while longer in the planning stages. Indeed, 2011's "The Tree of Life
" spent decades in pre-production, but when it came time to compile his notoriously ungainly footage and edit it down to less than two-and-a-half hours, Malick botched the ninth inning, resulting in a finished product as frustratingly uneven and misguided as it was clearly ambitious, the reality of what was on the screen never quite matching his universal-in-scope aims. Now, less than two years later, along comes "To the Wonder." All of the hallmarks of the director's work are herethe lingering shots of nature; the poetic voice-overs waxing philosophic about any number of existential topics; a minimalist approach to dialogue and plot over deeper themes involving love, religion, and the mysteries of life and deathbut they are taken to such an extreme degree that the movie forgets what it's trying to say and instead very nearly turns into a spoof of a Terrence Malick film. There is only so much twirling in wheat fields a person can handle before it starts to come off as a mockery of itself.
In a motion picture that forgoes a clearly-defined plot and keeps spoken dialogue to a minimum in place of admittedly stunning imagery and frequently abstract narration ("What is this love that loves us?" is asked multiple times, and may be a trick question), Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and the American-born Neil (Ben Affleck) are in love, for the time being living in France with Marina's 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). The three of them eventually move to the States and into an in-construction housing development in the Midwest where rural meets suburban, but Neil is hesitant to commit by marrying Marina. When her Visa expires, she finds herself forced back to Paris, losing her daughter to the girl's birth father in the process and wondering if there is any hope at all still left between her and Neil. After she is out of the picture, Neil reconnects with an ex-girlfriend, struggling rancher Jane (Rachel McAdams), who is clearly still trying to get over the heartbreak of her young daughter's death and sees in this man from her past a future she didn't anticipate.
Par for the course for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (2006's "Children of Men
"), "To the Wonder" is destined to go down as one of the most immaculately photographed motion pictures of the year, every shot emanating such beauty that one would be happy to hang any frame of the movie on their wall. From Marina's and Neil's opening visit to the Mont Saint-Michel, built like a mystical castle on a cloud, to the dreamy, nostalgic portraits of Midwestern Americana once they relocate to the U.S., Lubezki and Malick are at their usual top of their games. If one is to make a soul-searching film about human beings and the complicated power of love, however, there needs to be more than what "To the Wonder" provides. Except for when Marina, or Neil, or their spiritually doubting priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), are asking the Big Questions in voice-over, they are never heard speaking to each other above a mumble and hold no substantial conversations. When there is a falling-out between Marina and Neil, their arguments and childish throwing of glassware hold no weight because the sparring is so arbitrary and out of left field.
If Terrence Malick's goal was to present these people (who are credited with names that are never uttered through the course of the script) as intentional ciphers symbolic of all of us, that would be fine as long as he portrayed them in a realistic fashion. Instead, Neil is such a personality-free blank slate that one must question what Marina and, later, Jane see in him. When he's not chasing his women down the public streets (yes, literally chasing them as if they were all little kids at play), he either stands around looking contemplative or wanders about the nearby streams and lakes testing the water's pollution levels. At least he has a job of sorts; Marina apparently has so much free time that she can think of nothing to do but roll around in muddy fields and suck the dew off tree limbs. As for Jane, who comes in and out of the story in no more than fifteen minutes flat, she makes forlorn faces while petting buffalo and standing alongside roads in, yes, more fields. There's a difference between being whimsical and one with nature, and being mentally impaired, and these folk soak up so much of their time acting like no one in the world really acts that watching it becomes frustrating, then laughable by the end.
In filming "To the Wonder," it would be surprising to learn that Ben Affleck (2012's "Argo
"), Olga Kurylenko (2012's "Seven Psychopaths
"), a particularly stirring Rachel McAdams (2012's "The Vow
"), and Javier Bardem (2012's "Skyfall
") actually followed a script. Judging from the finished product, it looks like Malick paired up his actors and set them loose to meander and skip and twirl in a variety of picturesque locations while the camera captured it all. From this footage, the filmmaker compiled it into something resembling a narrative form and scribbled down a variety of lyrical wonderings for the performers to ADR over the images. Though this may have been Malick's process in the past, it betrays him this time. Did Malick not spend enough time clarifying all of his jumble of thoughts and ideas? Was he in a particular rush to complete it and didn't spend the appropriate time molding its rough edges? Or maybe his fascination with trees and grass swaying in the breeze got the best of him?
One step away from incoherence, "To the Wonder" is a glistening aesthetic marvel nestled in a big, old nature reserve of disappointment. In addition to largely flat characters with a lot of time on their hands, the house Neil and Marina live in seems to alternate and change without logic or reason at least three times throughout. In another scene, Marina is seen chatting with a young woman as they walk down the street. Clearly, they appear to be friends, but this is the only time this person is seen, disappearing thereafter just as randomly as she showed up. Midway through, Marina loses custody of Tatiana, yet, aside from one instance where they Skype together, she shows no emotion or concern for giving her up. She's too busy obsessing over Neil, then sabotaging things with a one night stand in a motel. There are no two ways about it: "To the Wonder" is a mess, but at least it's an interesting mess. No filmmaker without the scope of Terrence Malick's clear talent could fail so enormously and still walk away with a movie that demands as much discussion as this one does.