Review: To The Wonder (2013)

1 Jul

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick – Screening from July 4 – Exclusively at Cinema Nova, Carlton, VIC

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Review By Paul Anthony Nelson.

Terrence Malick is a genius.

 

But don’t just take my word for it: the guy’s a Rhodes Scholar, and a summa cum laude graduate in Philosophy from Harvard, no less. But it’s his compact, astonishing filmography which puts this point into further relief: three of his first five feature films, BADLANDS (1973), THE THIN RED LINE (1998) and THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), are bona fide masterpieces, with the hugely underrated THE NEW WORLD (2005) and physically breathtaking DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) not far behind. Malick is an auteur of singularly intuitive style, and, thus, his elliptical narratives, searching cinematography and dreamlike voiceovers aren’t for everybody. But, to this reviewer’s mind, he is a master of image and mood; his films’ avoidance of conventional dialogue delivery, and dependence upon human faces and natural vistas, somehow navigate a more direct, mightier pathway to emotional truth.

What’s more, the auteur is famous for shooting endless reams of film, taking his sweet time to put these things together: one became accustomed to greeting a new Malick film as an event, as — look at those years of release again — they generally land but once a decade. So, when a new Malick picture arrives just two scant years after the last (particularly as he has three more films shot and in the pipeline, presumably to whizz their way to us over the next few years), is it cause for celebration… or suspicion?

After seeing TO THE WONDER, it pains me to suggest the latter.

TO THE WONDER plays very much in the TREE OF LIFE sandbox, throwing out questions of love, spirituality, a world in turmoil and humanity’s effect upon it. We begin with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck), a couple clearly in love, travelling by train to Mont Saint-Michel, the picturesque monastery near Marina’s childhood home. They’ve been together in Paris for some time, with Neil even ingratiated to Marina’s young daughter from a previous marriage, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Their life seems wonderful, when Neil gets an enticing job offer in Oklahoma, and Marina agrees to move her and Tatiana with him. However, upon arrival in the US of A, they’re greeted by the prison of white middle class American suburbia – depicted with quietly efficient scorn – and the couple’s relationship instantly begins to deteriorate.

For a while, Marina takes solace in the church of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), but he’s grappling with his faith more than anybody. Soon, Marina and Tatiana must return to Paris, where she continues to be depressed by their situation, while in the US, Neil reunites with an old friend, Jane (Rachel MacAdams). This situation is further complicated some time later, when Marina resolves to return, and Walt Whitman’s maxim “you can never go home again” becomes brutally apparent.

While the story is loaded with potential, and touches on some compelling themes – how can true love and faith endure in this world when we’re surrounded by so much self-inflicted suffering – Malick, for the first time in his stellar 40 year career, seriously fumbles the ball.

The main issue is the story. While his past films carry the gravitas of elemental forces like war, love, violence, history, changing landscapes and spirituality, TO THE WONDER has all the emotional heft of a third-rate television melodrama. This particular treatment of these themes, as written and performed, just doesn’t justify the weighty Malick imprimatur and, more often than not, just comes off as silly.

It doesn’t help that his cast don’t seem particularly up to the task. Affleck’s limited range is exposed here, and Kurylenko, while obviously beautiful, is limited to a couple of vacant expressions – and not helped by the fact that her character, set up as a free spirit, dumbs down to the point of near-intellectual disability by film’s end. MacAdams, too, adds little but physical beauty to a nothing role. Of the performers, Bardem is the most accomplished, but is given little to do but mope about with a “why hath thou forsaken me??” look on his face. With each action, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to anybody.

Absent are the beautifully observed, infinitesimal details of Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken’s heartbreaking performances in TREE OF LIFE, or Jim Caviezel in THIN RED LINE, or the grace notes of BADLANDS’ Sissy Spacek or TREE’s Jessica Chastain. Everybody is given one note to play and drive into the Earth. What’s more, the film’s voiceover is in French (supplied by Marina), which is fine in isolation, but merely adds to the film’s unfortunate aura of Malickian parody when coupled with the “woe is me” melodrama, whooshing camera and random digressions. Malick’s juxtaposition of natural imagery and human emotion is strangely tone deaf here, even laughable at times, as if the relative speed of this production has thrown the compass of his peerless intuition off course.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is customarily gorgeous – this film has more beauty in its natural little fingernail than, say, the CG-splashed LIFE OF PI has in its whole body – but his method of constantly rushing his camera toward the actors here feels particularly annoying, like a creepy birthday clown running up to people to tickle them. Too much of the film feels like it was cobbled together from TREE OF LIFE outtakes – and indeed, as the end credits reveal, some of it was – and quickly assembled into a more abstract companion piece. While this is fine in theory, TREE OF LIFE was such a gigantic, powerful, definitive take on these similar themes that TO THE WONDER seems minor, sketchy, woefully underpowered and scarcely necessary.

Sadly, TO THE WONDER will be to Malick’s career what, say, THE TERMINAL is to Steven Spielberg’s –the exemplar of an auteur’s every perceived negative directorial trait in one film, providing unfortunate fuel to their detractors’ fire. Yet Malick is one of American cinema’s greatest artists and I, for one, remain confident he will bounce back with his next film… just, not too quickly, okay?

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2 Responses to “Review: To The Wonder (2013)”

  1. jordanandeddie August 5, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    the term ‘breathtaking’ is used far too often and without enough thought.
    the films of Terrence Malick truly are breathtaking.
    Jordan

    • Editor August 8, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

      It’s a word rarely used literally

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