To the Wonder

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/18/13 18:47:44

"The Gamboler"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The films of Terrence Malick tend to divide viewers between those who find his works to be rapturous tone poems that blend heady philosophical concerns with ravishing visual beauty and those who find them to be pretentious twaddles in which such concerns as plot and character development have been arbitrarily junked in order to fill the frame with endless shots of wheat fields blowing in the breeze and enough shots of young women twirling around to fill a lifetime's worth of Natalie Merchant videos. He is a director who simply has no interest in following the rules of conventional narrative structure, preferring a format in which the emotional beats carry much more weight than those dedicated to moving the story along. Most filmmakers are storytellers who say what they want, if anything, through plot and dialogue. Malick, on the other hand, is more along the lines of an impressionist who prefers to convey emotions through visual means rather than spelling things out directly.

And yet, the arrival of his latest film, "To the Wonder," may well unite both groups in a shared sense of confusion. For one thing, its very existence is a bit of a shock--Malick is legendary for taking years between projects (as few as five between his electrifying debut "Badlands" (1973) and his 1978 follow-up "Days of Heaven" and as many as twenty between "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line") and yet this one arrives less than two years after the release of his last film, the stunning "The Tree of Life." For another, it takes the elliptical storytelling format of his previous film and pushes it to such extremes that even some of his most ardent admirers are likely to find it a little too enigmatic for its own good at times. The end result is a film that is alternately stunning and stunned and while I have the deepest admiration for what Malick has achieved here, I must also admit that if I had to pick one of his films to watch right now, it would most likely come in sixth in that particular race.

Set in the present day (another mild shock for Malick followers as his films have, with the exception of the contemporary Sean Penn material in "The Tree of Life," always been set in the past), the film stars Olga Kurylenko as Marina, a Ukrainian divorcee living in France with her ten-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). As the story begins, she has met and fallen in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), an American traveller on an extended holiday. As they go from Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel to the streets and shops of Paris, it is clear that Marina is head over heels for the guy and while Neil may not be quite as demonstrative, he does have a certain affection for both her and her daughter. When it comes time for him to return home to Oklahoma, where he works as an environmental inspector, he invites her and Tatiana to join him and they happily accept.

At first, all seems well but after a while, it becomes evident that Neil is having second thoughts about this decision. Things soon begin to deteriorate and when Marina's visa expires, she and Tatiana return home to France while Neil eventually begins to take up with old acquaintance Jane (Rachel McAdams). However, this new relationship soon leaves him feeling as restless and dissatisfied as before and it soon falls apart as well. Eventually, he comes into contact with Marina and when he learns that she is having troubles, he brings her back to Oklahoma in the hopes of making a fresh start only to find the old problems cropping up again. Hovering on the outskirts of the story is Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest who is himself immersed in an existential funk due to a crisis of faith.

Most of this may sound straightforward enough in the recounting but Malick has chosen to present the material in a somewhat more oblique manner. For example, unless I missed something along the way, we do not even learn the names of the central characters until the end credits begin to roll. There are precious few scenes in which characters actually exchange lines of dialogue and when they do, they are presented in a hushed and halting manner that makes it seem as if we are eavesdropping on the lives of these people but which is often too inaudible for us to discern what is being said. Ben Affleck, for example, delivers what has to be the fewest lines from a male lead in a major American film since the days when Charles Bronson was working regularly. The others have a little more to work with but my guess is that if you took away all the voice-over, all of the stars were probably off-book by the time of the first script read-through.

On the other hand, there is plenty of voiceover--mostly courtesy of Marina (whose lines are almost entirely delivered in French) though I think all the main characters get a crack at it at some point--and after a while, the suspicion begins to grow that much of it was added in at some point in order to spackle over large holes created during the editing process. (As per usual with Malick, he shot far more than he used and this time around, he shot scenes featuring Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet and Barry Pepper and not one of them appears in the final cut.) According to IMDB, Malick supposedly shot the film without a formal script and while that sounds more like a sarcastic jab than anything else, I must say that if there was ever a film where that might have been the case (at least not one made by Coleman Francis), "To the Wonder" is it. Most of these voiceovers are delivered while the characters wander though landscapes meant to mirror their psyches--Neil is often seen in muddy surroundings silently mourning an ailing Mother Earth that represents his inability to connect with those around him while Marina twirls cheerfully through fields, lawns and beaches with such carefree abandon that an exceptional shameless person might suggest that she has a gamboling problem.

"To the Wonder" is so overt in its sense of Malickiness that there are times when it teeters dangerously close to looking like an astonishingly detailed and resolutely straight-faced spoof of his entire oeuvre and if it had been made by virtually any other filmmaker working today, I am fairly certain that I would be dismissing it as a pretentious mess that has no clear idea of what it wants to say or how it wants to say it. And yet, while I recognize all of its flaws, I have to admit that I was compelled to go back to watch it a couple more times since my initial viewing and have grown increasingly mesmerized with it with each subsequent screening. This is one of the most deeply felt films that I have seen in some time--even if I didn't already know that the story was semi-autobiographical in nature, I would have immediately suspected it because every scene teems with a sense of the awkward and unruly nature of human emotion that can only be gleaned from direct human experience.

This is not a film where everyone is glib and well-spoken and where all their personal problems do not follow convenient narrative arcs on the way to pat conclusions. I also found Malick's extension of the non-linear narrative approach that he utilized in "The Tree of Life" to be an interesting through-point for what might have otherwise been a conventional tale of a transatlantic romance gone bust. And of course, like all of Malick's films, every frame is visually ravishing as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates one breathtaking image after another that effectively captures both the vast expanses and infinite possibilities of romantic bliss and the claustrophobic nature of what happens when it all goes bad.

By the conventions of contemporary America cinema, "To the Wonder" does not "work" for the most part. There isn't much of a story and what little there is of it is not especially gripping, the characters are largely ciphers (aside from Marina, who Kurylenko brings vibrantly to life through her undeniably engaging performance) and it doesn't so much end as simply fade into the ether. And yet, even though it is not an entirely satisfying film in many ways, watching Malick working in a minor key is undeniably fascinating and proves that even a second-tier effort from him adds up to a far richer moviegoing experience than the top-shelf offerings of practically anyone else out there these days. It may not be for most people and even many of those that it might actually be for may find themselves put off by it at times. For those who are willing to embrace its wonders despite its flaws and ramblings, "To the Wonder" is worth the effort and then some.

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