By Jake Howell firstname.lastname@example.org
The Torontonian Reviews: To The Wonder
To the Wonder feels like the spiritual sequel to Terrence Malick’s previous Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life – with an emphasis on “spiritual”. Sadly, like most sequels, To the Wonder fails to capture the magic of the original.
Employed to great success in The Tree of Life, Malick’s steady camera is again creeping and sweeping its way through and around the various environments he sets his actors. The elliptical editing also seen previously in the 2011 Palme stunner is back again, thus making it very easy to compare the two films side-by-side. In terms of visuals they look very similar, and it’s not a stretch to think To the Wonder exists in the same universe as The Tree of Life’s. To the Wonder was filmed in Oklahoma, but the suburban neighbourhood seen here is astonishingly close to what an updated 1950’s Waco, Texas might be. The subject matter is not exactly a drastic change, either: themes of love and family inform both of the films inherently.
It’s generous to call this type of cinema “innovative” now, but at least in The Tree of Life audiences were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of beautiful music; truly, opuses in their own dominion. Operatic gems like Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa are heartbreakingly gorgeous, and it’s disappointing to know there isn’t anything that comes as close to matching the beauty of these masterpieces in To the Wonder. Make no mistake: this is one of the biggest reasons, if not the reason, why the movie isn’t as good as The Tree of Life. I attribute much of the success of that film to its breathtaking soundtrack, and To the Wonder makes you wait for a grandiose score to whisk you away in a Malick-drawn carriage. It never comes.
To the Wonder borders nigh on proselytism, crossing lines that few directors dare tread beyond. On the one hand, I applaud the director for showing something typically maligned in contemporary (read: secular) society. On the other hand, however, I reject Malick’s preaching of the Good Word on screen so shamelessly. Hinted heavily at in The Tree of Life, Malick’s Christianity is blatantly on display here, and I’d go as far to say that Malick has cinematically inserted a representation of himself as Javier Bardem’s priest character. Bardem quietly contemplates (as one does in a Malick film) on love; how he sees others bewildered by it, how he himself is a lonely man who can do little but observe. There are only scraps of information the public knows about Terrence Malick as a person, so I have only his films to judge what makes the man tick. Yet visualizing Bardem’s priest as Malick helps me understand the director a little better, allowing me to appreciate the film for what it is. It’s sad, really, but kind of beautiful.
Again, the emphasis here is “kind of”. To the Wonder is only “kind of” beautiful because there isn’t a whole lot going on behind all of Malick’s pretty pictures. To call this film gaseous is an affront to noble helium, really. Yes, To the Wonder has some aesthetic confidence in its constitution, but the problem of substance still remains: the film speaks few words while still pretending to be thoughtful. Malick would have a better film on his hands if these thoughts amounted to anything overtly interesting, but they do not.
To the Wonder is a love story, and it’s frustrating to see such batty characters ride the turmoil of love. Ben Affleck’s Neal and Olga Kurylenko’s Marina are “in love” in this film, or at least, they are in a Malickian version of love. The same goes for Rachel McAdams’ Jane, who Neal has a brief interlude with. These adults are really more like children; playing and frolicking through fields and lawns because of how in love they are. That Malick chose to include sex scenes (with real nudity!) in To the Wonder is surprising, given just how chaste the film rings.
Affleck’s Neal has frankly a broken taste in females, choosing to get involved with emotionally unstable women who love nothing more than to whirl around like Dervishes. It’s dizzying to watch Malick direct these women spin around and around and around to the point of absurdity; a juvenile “look-they’re-so-in-love” ploy played repeatedly with diminishing returns. The propensity to twirl and frolic is never really explained, nor is it questioned – but you’d think Neal would run away as fast as possible. There’s no other way to put it: these women act like they’re off their medication, which is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who enjoys half-decent character development.
Affleck’s Neal isn’t perfect either. The dude is, in essence, a mute: saying nothing but whispers and pointing his way through dialogues. I needn’t mention that his mood swings just as pendulously as Marina and Jane’s, because Malick views love as chaotic and untameable. At the same time, we just don’t care enough about any of these characters to investigate their inner nature.
That being said, having thought about the director a little more, I also see flashes of Terrence Malick in Affleck’s Neal. Neal’s occupation in To the Wonder looks to be some sort of geological researcher, and we see him digging through mucky construction sites with various tools to test the ground and water for chemicals. I equate this to something similar the director is doing: Malick is testing – no, searching – for purity and truth in the unknown, and these scenes (for my money, anyway) are some of the only moments of any discernible weight in the film.
What did this film look like before Malick cut out the majority of his players? As we know, Amanda Peet, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper, and Michael Sheen were excised from the final edit, which begs more than a few questions, not the least of which concerns original intention. Will Malick be using these performances in other works, or was the filmmaking process all so organic that he didn’t know where he was taking the film? I don’t know the answers – I can only judge what is screened in front of me. What was screened in front of me doesn’t hold much water.
To the Wonder isn’t very good, but it’s still nonetheless an impressive film to look at. It’s true what they say about the mysterious director; that his worst pictures are still worth participating in and dissecting no matter how useless or vacuous they seem. This is absolutely the case with Malick’s latest film, steeped with artistic beauty but stuffed with preachy Bible babble and decaffeinated romance.