Terrence Malick’s films are a little tricky to review. People are either on board with his oblique, beautiful style or they’re not. Therefore, opinions are usually very polarized. Tree of Life was booed at Cannes, but went on to win the Palm D’or. Similarly, his new film, To the Wonder, was booed at Venice but still garnered a few rave reviews. I tend to fall into the Malick fanboy camp, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand his detractors – his films can be extremely pretentious and meandering. And To the Wonder is a prime example of Malick’s tediousness.
Following his first two stunning films in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick famously took about twenty years before he made his next film, The Thin Red Line. With that film, Malick began drifting further and further from conventional narrative films into more abstract and poetic ones. Last year’s Tree of Life saw Malick reach the zenith of this style. It was bold, adventurous, flawed, but overall an amazing experience. To the Wonder plays more like Tree of Life’s outtake reel. It has all the trademark Malick-isms: beautiful cinematography, nature, voice over, themes of love and spirituality. But where Tree of Life used these conventions in unique and, above all, interesting ways, To the Wonder offers nothing beyond surface level beauty.
The way in which the story is told is interesting, but, unfortunately, the story itself is not. Ben Affleck plays an American man who brings his French girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to live with him in the States. Kurylenko tries her best to keep the magic of their relationship alive, but Affleck gradually becomes aloof and the couple drift apart. Enter Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s childhood friend, who becomes another love interest. Meanwhile, a priest played by Javier Bardem struggles with his faith in the face of the miserable and sick members of his congregation. The story is mostly wordless, save for cryptic, ‘poetic’ voice overs, and the odd line or two. Instead, Malick uses gorgeous shots to get across all we need to know about the characters and the story. The problem is we’ve seen this before from Malick – and done in a much better way.
The themes in this film – love, nature, religion – are present in pretty much all of Malick’s films, but never have they felt so shallow and obvious. He has nothing new to say here, and you have to wonder why he bothered making this film at all. The characters are thinly drawn and lack the depth of Brad Pitt or Jessica Chastain’s characters in Tree of Life – despite basically being the same types. Affleck is grim and aloof, Kurylenko is full of life and constantly dancing around. Kurylenko does her best, and, at times, is able to get you to feel for her. Affleck, however, seems a little lost. Perhaps a more magnetic actor would’ve made his scenes a little more interesting to watch. Javier Bardem is the strongest actor here, but his story ultimately doesn’t lead to much. The voice over, usually fairly strong in Malick films, feels almost like a parody (“Your love lifts me, but I am being constantly dragged to Earth.” “God is everywhere, yet I can’t see him.”, etc). However, the film is beautiful to behold (courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki) , and it almost makes you forgive the weak subject matter – almost.
Malick seems to be aiming for an emotional love story, but presents it in such an oblique and distant way that you can’t connect to the characters (odd, since he has succeeded in doing this before). There’s nothing wrong with being unemotional, but there’s nothing intellectual to the film (beyond “love is good but fleeting”) to warrant that approach. Instead, To the Wonder sits awkwardly in an odd middle zone – neither emotional nor intellectual. But damn is it pretty to look at.