Terrence Malick is nothing short of an artist – there is no denying that. He shoots with grace, style, class, whimsy, and is always able to achieve aesthetic beauty like Lars Von Trier or any comparably artsy filmmaker, making something symphonically endearing like moving poetry. His last film, The Tree Of Life, was a perfect example of Malick’s eye for grandiose visuals, but also a perfect example of why people either adore or despise his work. His latest film, To The Wonder, continues Malick’s “love me or hate me” mentality with the same expected pieces, but unfortunately backs itself with a much weaker effort this time around.
Following a fledgling relationship between an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a Ukrainian named Marina (Olga Kurylenko), To The Wonder focuses on their tumultuous life together after Neil convinces Marina and her daughter that moving to Oklahoma with him is the best possible idea. After he gets a mundane job and their relationship simmers though, Marina starts having other thoughts. Enter Ben’s past love interest Jane (Rachel McAdams), and you’ve got yourself a heaping helping of relationship drama. Oh yeah, Javier Bardem plays a priest suffering a crisis of faith, so there’s that too.
Visually, Malick stays with his strong suit by working in moving collages of natural beauty with mostly perfected set-pieces for our characters to be placed against, working the camera in many contorted angles. Concerning the relationships portrayed on-screen, beautiful shot selection made me feel how intertwined our lovers were when emotions were running high, but then Malick pulls back and sets emotions of distance and coldness whenever characters are going through loveless spats or sadder feelings. It’s astonishing how Malick is able to tell entire stories using nothing but proper framing and effortless movement, which is especially prevalent in To The Wonder (and I’ll explain why shortly). Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also deserves credit for working so magnificently with Malick, re-teaming after creating the marvelous experience that was The Tree Of Life.
Unfortunately though, that’s where my positives start running out concerning Malick’s latest film.
I know I said how stunned I am at what Malick can tell just using visuals, and I know I called some of his past work poetic, but To The Wonder takes both of these compliments and runs with them entirely too far, until there’s nothing positive about them. I personally would have loved a little more straight-narrative storytelling and a little less reliance on moving shots, as most of the conversations and dialogue happen as narrations from each character, reflecting in the past tense to the actions on-screen in a very short philosophical manner, accompanied by emotional cues like longingly staring or making angry faces. The entire story is told through accentuated features from our entire cast versus simple layouts, but what else do you expect from Malick?
It doesn’t work in the least though, as To The Wonder honestly feels like the next really annoying Levi’s commercial. You know what I’m talking about – one of those excruciatingly long commercials where some narrator preaches about being a pioneer while attractive looking kids run around being free and wild on screen, while we sit utterly confused and waiting for a product (that we now know is Levi’s) to reveal itself? Sure, Malick may do it with more style, but moments of nothing but strange looks and sad faces had me glancing at my watch for some type of release, until the next slide-show of rivers and trees brought us to some more bewildered dazes.
In terms of acting, I also thought most of the scenes were actually incredibly cheesy, doing nothing to enhance the emotional value. Instead of letting his characters use words, Malick created horribly clichéd romantic exchanges right down to a scene where Affleck and McAdams are wresting with their emotions by taking turns gazing ever-so-softly as the other one looks away. Ben stares, looks away, Rachel stares, looks away, Ben stares – yeah, I think we get the point. Where Malick is usually proficient at telling a story through imagery, he actually handcuffed the performers in this production by taking away their vocal dialogue in place of cryptic prose. Unfortunately, the film ends up destroying the heartfelt message Malick so desperately tried to force.
To The Wonder is a story about love lost, love found, love lost again, emotional indecisiveness, decisions, consequences, and everything important to our lives. It’s weighty, dense material Malick tried to convey in the most beautiful, art driven sense possible – but unfortunately this time the imagery just isn’t enough. Instead of a sensory assault of visionary gallery-worthy work, we get nothing but a surface viewing featuring the following – Ben Affleck being a cold prick, Olga Kurylenko jumping on beds, Olga Kurylenko dancing awkwardly in random places, Rachel McAdams making pouty faces, Ben Affleck breaking things, and Javier Bardem showing up randomly to interject some religious commentary. I 100% support true artistic cinema, but not when all rational points are lost.
All of the prettiest pictures of mother nature couldn't save To The Wonder from being a lifeless, overly-poetic bore that fails to keep a consistently flowing story intact.