Monday, April 15, 2013

To The Wonder

TO THE WONDER: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, directed by Terrence Malick (113 min.)

For the last fifteen years, since his reemergence as a director after twenty years spent living in Europe, Terrence Malick's films have grown more and more personal and, subsequently, farther and farther from traditional structure.  Dialogue has been secondary to his painterly images and stunningly beautiful visual artistry, and the result had been some of the finest films.  The Thin Red Line is haunting, The New World serene, The Tree of Life inspiring and arguably one of the most beautiful films of all time.  Now comes To The Wonder, a film shot in exactly the same way as Tree of Life.  Only this time around, as dialogue is even more sparse and characterization even thinner, things don't quite work.

I have taken a day now before writing a word about To The Wonder, and this time has softened by stance a bit on the finished product.  As the credits began I was frustrated and weary from Malick's decisions here.  Where I was in awe of his 2011 masterpiece, I was frankly bored this time around.
At least I understand what he is trying to do now, but I am still not convinced his choices were the correct ones.  And I don't like to compare directors' works to one another, but the similarity in style between this picture and Tree of Life force my hand.

Ben Affleck stars, or at least is involved here, as Neil, a man madly in love with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and living with her and her young daughter in Paris as the film opens.  At least we are led to believe Neil loves Marina, but he never speaks.  There are no conversations, just endless amounts of walking and gazing and frolicking against the backdrop of so many beautiful settings.  Even as they move back to Oklahoma, where their love begins to deteriorate, Malick manages to pull every last bit of beauty out of the landscape.  Marina's visa expires and she must return to Paris while Neil stays behind and falls into a relationship with Jane, a former love from his younger days who endured tragedy in her past.  Rachel McAdams plays Jane as a paper-thin sketch of a character.  There are ideas of characters here, but they are no more than vehicles to walk through the beauty of the landscape.

There is a parallel story which I found infinitely more interesting and compelling than the love triangle.  It is the story of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a wholesome priest who struggles with his own faith and with the loneliness which must surround priests.  It is an aspect I never thought about with priests, and the idea of this man and what he does when he is not holding service is fascinating here.  Quintana reaches out to the impoverished and the troubled in the area - drug addicts and teen mothers - as best he can, but his own struggles with God distract his heart.  In voice over (which is ninety percent of the dialogue), Quintana speaks to Christ, begging him to speak back and fill the loneliness.  I was engaged with Bardem's performance and his plight, and a conversation he has with the maintenance worker at the church is the most energetic passage of the whole film.

There are bad choices made, relationships wounded, and an eventual end which I will not spoil.  I was disappointed with To The Wonder.  Everything in Malick's style, the stargazing and aimless wandering and fascination with the external world, worked perfectly in Tree of Life, a film focusing on the arch of humanity and, ultimately, a child.  To The Wonder would have benefited from conversation from time to time.  I don't expect the rapid-fire words a David Mamet play when I sit down for a Malick film, but a little bit more would have drawn these characters out to a point where I felt something when tragedy struck.  There are no strong characters to carry the film like the young boys in Tree of Life, or Brad Pitt's stern father.  Everyone is passive, so the tone of the film remains distant and thin to me.

To The Wonder has its moments, and it is not something altogether terrible; but it suffers under the weight of a style which doesn't seem to fit what the story wants to say.  I understand the personal nature of this film, the way it may mirror certain things in Malick's own life, but it is the very nature of the film that disagrees with me.  The strongest feelings I gathered from the picture is my desire to sit down and watch Tree of Life once more, where all of these embellishments make sense.