To The Wonder
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
The debate-engendering reception of Terrence Malick’s films continues with his new movie To The Wonder. The festival crowd like the ones in TIFF (including Dustin) and Vencie hated it, Roger Ebert loved it. I see both sides. Since there are more detractors against this new movie than fans, it’s tempting to play the devil’s advocate.
To The Wonder makes for an interesting companion piece to Malick’s earlier work in The Tree of Life. The latter coherently shows the conflict between nature and grace. The former works like an opened door. The characters dizzyingly pirouette into the endless possibilities of nature and its duplicitous, volatile and corruptible qualities. We get the title from the words of our protagonist Marina, a happy Russian-born Parisian. She embraces nature and new experiences, falling in love in Mont St. Michel with a journalist named Neil (Ben Affleck), eventually deciding to move to Oklahoma and bring her young daughter with her. But Malick eventually sledgehammers her optimism.
Marina could have easily ended up as a madwoman trapped in an alienating relationship and country. Neil is equally powerless, endlessly investigating environmental pollution caused by exurban infrastructure, and it doesn’t help that half of the people he’s interviewing are uncooperative and afraid of scandal and change. His on-and-off lover Jane (Rachel McAdams, unfortunately playing the least developed character of the four) might have to sell her ranch to pay for its debts. Their parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is distant, unable to find God’s transcendent love in the helpless faces of his community’s welfare class. They might be as normal and practically nameless as Malick’s other characters but here he approaches these on such a personal focus.
If anything, what Malick does best here is finding a new way to capture loneliness. And not the cuddly kind where we watch someone express his brooding pathos through mundane tasks. The depictions of these characters are devoid of intimacy, an approach that could have been so exhausting had it not felt as daring.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography help engender this tone. Malick’s subjects feel like boulders captured through low or high angles, panning like the camera was a bumblebee. His close-ups are invasive, his long shots occasionally blocked by nature or man-made fortresses. The characters turn their backs to the camera, they converse in places that are surprisingly not easy from which to eavesdrop. There’s also an epistolary method to the script. The characters speak more clearly to themselves or to their lost God than they do to each other, their alienation clouding their attempts towards interpersonal contact.
Malick toes the line between depicting frustration and offering a frustrating product itself. And as strange as this might sound, even in times that the movie makes me hate myself, I respected how Malick can deliver such raw and genuine emotions.
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