Two years is an unbelievably short period of time within which to release two movies for any director; the fact that Terrence Malick, notorious for the waits he inflicts on his audience between films (stretching two decades between the awe-inspiring Days of Heaven and the brilliant The Thin Red Line) has managed this is nothing short of a miracle.
I will say this upfront; as far as filmmakers go, Malick takes his place beside Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ozu, Renoir, Welles, Kubrick, Scorsese and so many others, as one of my movie-making idols. Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World are all excellent. His 1978 work Days of Heaven and recent The Tree of Life are two of the finest films I have ever seen. Thus, you can imagine my excitement to learn that his new film would be released in February 2013 after a polarized reaction at Venice – as, I fear, all of Malick’s work post Tree of Life must now suffer.
To The Wonder is ostensibly about love; human love (encapsulated within relationships), spiritual love (the bonds between humanity and its creator) and faith (what it means and how it is tested in all of us). Ben Affleck plays an American writer, beginning to struggle and forced to find manual work, protecting the environment, in sequences showing just how destructive human influence is on the world given to us. Olga Kurylenko (perhaps best known as the Bond girl from Quantum of Solace) plays a single mother, who falls in love with Affleck in Paris and goes to live with him in the US. Their relationship is passionate and turbulent. Rachel McAdams is an acquaintance from Affleck’s past that comes back into his life after great personal suffering and Javier Bardem plays the local priest, trying to make it through his own crisis of faith.
There is a great movie somewhere in here. Like all of Malick’s work it is beautifully shot, one breathtakingly elegant swoon of a film. There are traces of great acting, Olga Kurylenko proves that she is worth her weight in gold as an actress, a difficult enough achievement in a Malick film, considering his infamous disregard for his actors’ work in the final cut.
Yet what we have here is a film that has been edited to death. Yes it may offer some of the most astonishingly beautiful images we are likely to see this year on a cinema screen but where’s the substance? Unlike The Tree of Life, which is a joy both on a visual and cerebral level, To The Wonder is hollow, pretentious and dull. Instead of concentrating on the substance which has up to now always been the result of Malick’s distinctive editing style, here it has cut it out almost completely.
Hence, what we have is a long film that spends its two hour duration attempting to get started and then ending. In a film which centres round the Ben Affleck character, he gets little over twenty words, and never do we hear an opinion or interesting piece of dialogue that might make him come alive as a character. As it stands, this particular American writer doesn’t even reach the status of cardboard cut-out.
The lack of dialogue is compensated for by narration, similar to that in The Tree of Life, it’s full of whispers, questions and painful internal realizations. The effect in the former film was mesmerizing, but in this smaller, less well-written movie, the narration becomes ponderous, even silly, often striving for poetry and hitting corn at a speed to make you wince. The same goes for the visuals, beautiful they may be but how repetitive and painfully clichéd! If I saw just one more shot of Kurylenko dancing or Affleck and his romantic interests creeping round each other silently like Michael Myers and one of his sexy victims, I may have left the screening in frustration.
To The Wonder has its moments, mostly visual that sometimes engages our emotions. They are, sadly, fleeting and the feeling of relief when the final credits roll is overwhelming. I do not suffer from a short attention span, and it takes a lot to truly bore me but this film beat me. Unlike its predecessors, this movie only shows us whimsical reflections, nay shadows of human beings and human relationships and it certainly offers us nothing new in terms of thematic material. Yet its lack of originality is not what exasperates me, it is its painstaking self-indulgence and ferocious lack of depth that I found the most shocking. More like a satirical mimicry of Malick’s oeuvre than a film by the great man himself, this is not only his worst film; it is a genuinely poor one, a fact which no amount of technical wizardry can make up for. I remain a great lover of this director and look forward to his future work but this must serve as a violent reminder that even the creative geniuses out there can fall on their face every now and then.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (February ’13)