To the Wonder Review
Malick goes too far with his latest moody experimental drama.
I've got a lot of time for Terrence Malick. Whilst his acclaimed first feature, Badlands, left me somewhat cold, his eye for wondrous beauty and visual poetry became more evident in 1978's Days of Heaven. Then, after a twenty-year hiatus, he returned to directing with one of my favourite features of all time, the stunning anti-war drama The Thin Red Line, and followed it up with his own distinctive take on the tale of Pocahontas, the beautiful New World. Whilst 2011's Tree of Life alienated some with its dangerously ambitious scale, it still managed to resonate on a personal level with others.
To the Wonder, however, has the dubious accolade of being the most experimental of all his features; the most purely cinematic, jettisoning almost all theatrical conventions in favour of the director's trademark lyrical style. And it goes too far for its own good.
The mood piece revolves around two main characters. Neil and Marina - played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko - a couple who meet abroad, fall in love, and return to Neil's Oklahoma hometown to live as a family with Marina's daughter. Complications arise when the passion subsides and, with Marina's religious and cultural isolation, things start to turn sour.
There is no denying that Malick's art is wondrous, majestic and positively magical. He has the ability to literally convey those thousand words of story in one perfectly painted moment. Even a master director needs somebody to be able to rein in his eccentricities, however, and Malick, unfortunately, appears to answer to no man.
Undoubtedly the Studios required him to turn in a film less than 2 hours in length and, given that he is the kind of filmmaker who regularly shoots 5 hour first cuts, his abiding by the 2 hour limitations can have a disastrous effect and required no less than 5 editors to bring into effect. His cast members all admit to not having a clue as to what the final cut is like - they don't even know how much of their own work will stay in, and have absolutely no idea what will happen to the scenes which they weren't in.
This leaves the likes of Rachel McAdams - playing Ben's childhood sweetheart - and Javier Bardem - playing a disillusioned priest - orbiting the piece as if their inclusion in it was a mere afterthought. Both of them received top billing - alongside Affleck and Kurylenko - and yet Bardem might as well have not been in it (his character feels like he wandered into the story from an entirely different movie Malick had in mind) and McAdams barely scratches an extended cameo position. That's not to mention the numerous big names - Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper - whose scenes simply didn't make the final cut.
I can understand why Kurylenko decided to make Malick promise not to leave her scenes on the cutting room floor (although, ironically, in interview she inadvertently revealed that her favourite scenes - confessions made to Bardem's priest - weren't even in the final cut!) but she should have perhaps done better research. You see, whilst Malick had Affleck and Kurylenko busy reading weighty classics in preparation for their roles (like Anna Karenina), he himself actually held the key to the mystery behind these characters and their tumultuous relationship. After all, the fiercely reserved hermit of a filmmaker was actually telling his own tale.
Ever wondered where Malick went during his 20 year hiatus between making 1978's Days of Heaven and 1998's The Thin Red Line? Well, see if any of this rings familiar... He moved to Paris in 1980, met a Frenchwoman whom he started a relationship with and whom he married in 1985, and brought back to live in the States, only to divorce her in 1996 and marry his hometown high-school sweetheart instead. To the Wonder makes a whole lot more sense when you realise that it is basically a look at Malick's life during his 'quiet' years (even Affleck's character's job appears to have been inspired by Malick's geologist father). Hence Kurylenko should have known her part would have never been cut - she is, after all, playing arguably the most important role: inspired by Malick's late ex-wife, who tragically died in 2008 of cancer.
It's no surprise, though, that the cast didn't really have a clue what was going on, even during the shoot. Working without a script, they may have been hoping to show off their improvisational skills but, little did they know, but none of their dialogue even made the final film. Malick's always shown a preference for visual expressionism over theatrical convention, but he's never done a film without any dialogue whatsoever, and his scant traces of flimsy voiceover do little to appease an audience desperate - but unable - to comprehend this abstract piece.
Indeed, harsh as it may have seemed, Affleck's honest reaction to seeing the final cut just about sums it up: "it makes Tree of Life look like Transformers". Don't misunderstand the man either, it's not a backwards compliment, he's merely trying to highlight just how inaccessible To the Wonder is, even when compared to the already dangerously inaccessible The Tree of Life. Ironic to think that these two features are actually supposed to form the first two chapters in a trilogy of features, culminating in his upcoming, Christian Bale / Natalie Portman romantic drama, Knight of Cups. Who knows whether that will prove even more abstract...
There's still a certain genius at work here, however, with regular Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki playing with a few digitally shot sequences (the fish-eye intro is somewhat disarming) before settling into a more traditionally Malickian cinematic scope on film, and delivering - particularly in the final few shots - some truly stunning compositions. And there are some wonderful touches ("I want to keep your name") which hint at the high art that this great master is capable of. Certainly, on the face of it, it is a study in pure artistry to pull off an entire relationship drama with no dialogue, and with the characters merely gliding around one another like remote controlled swans. But Malick only really proves here that there is a blurred line between genius and insanity, more often than not letting eccentricity get in the way of emotional content or tangible impact.
If this was Malick's first or second feature it would likely be forgiven - even his first feature after his 20-year absence from film - but after delivering masterworks like Days of Heaven, New World and The Tree of Life - all of which included relationship studies within them which were just as impressive as anything To the Wonder has to offer - it seems like a massive step back for him to make such a limited, small-scale work, and deliver it with such vague, abstract brushstrokes.
And whilst Kurylenko (who was wasted in Oblivion, but works better on repeat viewings) does some of the best work in her entire career, she stills plays it somber and emotionally distant - and she's the most emotive of the whole cast - leaving Affleck, Bardem and McAdams twisting in the wind in coldly aloof confusion.
Undoubtedly To the Wonder will touch some viewers - it speaks volumes about the problems that cultural, language and religious barriers can bring to relationships - but it may also alienate some of Malick's staunchest defenders. Certainly you should take heed of Affleck's warning: if you didn't get along with the vastly superior but also very expressionistic The Tree of Life then you'll likely find nothing but frustration in To the Wonder and, even if you did find the majesty in the Tree, it may still be lost to you this time around.
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