Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Films that dare to transcend the laws of conventional narrative and structure to become much more a piece of art are somewhat of a mixed bag for me. I applaud filmmakers who aspire to create a cinematic poem, love letter, or reflection/meditation and who are willing to sacrifice traditional story techniques to try something different. Terrance Malick is just such a filmmaker as his latest film is certainly much more a love letter or poem than anything else. The Tree of Life certainly fit that bill, and although I enjoyed that film for its ideas and subtext, I could not say the same for his latest.
To The Wonder is billed as a drama involving an American man finding love and marriage in Europe, who then to the USA and reconnects with a past romance while his marriage deteriorates. I have just summarized nearly everything that the narrative has to offer, there isn’t much else to it in terms of plot. Throw in a side-plot involving a priest and his loss of faith and you’ve learned the entire plot in two sentences.
Also there is little to zero dialogue between characters in the film. Instead the majority of the script is spoken by the actors as voice-over, and more frustrating is Malick’s decision to write these thoughts as if they were poems rather than expository dialogue. This decision proves costly as the four main characters of the story just aren’t very interesting to begin with, and too many times the actors are frolicking around the camera in open fields, empty houses and supermarkets with little to do. And at a runtime of one hour and fifty minutes, believe me, you really start to feel that runtime about 25 minutes in.
It’s difficult to comment on the acting as I never really felt the actors were asked to do anything besides emoting, staring, and again frolicking. This is not a slight on the acting at all; I believe this is exactly what Malick asked of his actors, and they seem to adhere to that respectfully. So it’s not really fair for me to go one way or the other as far as performances. I will say that no one was distracting to the story, but no one stood out either. It’s worth noting that for a film that features Rachel McAdams character in the poster as well as sharing top-billing, I expected to see much more of her as she couldn’t have been in the film for more than fifteen to twenty minutes, and that’s stretching it.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy in the film as Malick has again proven himself a true visual auteur. If he ever decided to hang up his directing hat permanently, he could slide into photography and be just as successful, if not more. That being said, To the Wonder is a visually gorgeous film, what with the majority of the film set in front of a backdrop of beautiful natural landscapes, sunrises and sunsets. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be praised for finding subtle beauty in the strangest places including boxes squared off in an empty house and a simple shopping cart ride through a department store.
In short, as is the case with much of his work for me, I was only interested during To the Wonder with what visuals the director would reveal next and little else. I believe Malick’s films are often exercises in patience and time and one must be willing to possess a great deal of these in order to wholly appreciate his work and discover the many cinematic riches that lie beneath. While I acknowledge his mastery of the cinematic landscape, especially in his prior work, I was simply unengaged for the majority of his latest. And it doesn’t help that I learned right before the screening that Rachel Weisz’s performance, an actress I adore, had been completely edited from the film. I’ve come to learn that like so many other lost performances in his prior work, this is something that Malick likes to do in all his films. And just like Gary Oldman’s performance that was removed from The Thin Red Line, To the Wonder leaves me with a feeling of what might’ve been had the director bucked his own trend of directing choices and nuances.