Variety first reviewed Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. But some movies demand more than one opinion. In the new 3-View column, our trio of top critics take on divisive pics from conflicting angles. You decide who’s right:
A MORE INTIMATE LOOK FOR MALICK FANS
It’s rare for a filmmaker to suddenly change his metabolism midway through a career. But for the enigmatic Terrence Malick, his sixth film as director, “To the Wonder,” is not only the fastest movie he’s ever made (it premiered in Venice in 2012, just one year after “The Tree of Life” won in Cannes) but also the first set entirely in the present. There were hints in “Tree” that Malick might be slightly aghast at the modern world, shooting through a distorted wide-angle lens that made Sean Penn seem an unwitting prisoner of downtown Houston’s steel-and-glass skyscrapers, when he wasn’t sulking about a forbiddingly sleek residence that looked like it sprang from the pages of an Architectural Digest guest-edited by Michael Haneke.
In “To the Wonder,” Malick turns a markedly warmer eye on the environs of Bartlesville, Okla., where the director spent part of his own childhood — a western oasis that offers no shortage of the flowing wheat fields and tall grass Malick adores — as well as a succession of ordinary suburban backyards, strip malls and chain stores.
Those relatively foreign objects are captured with a rapturous, incandescent glow by Malick and his regular cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki. In one remarkable shot, a Sonic drive-in, seen at night and from a distance, beckons like some kind of culinary promised land. An ordinary supermarket seems a triumph of human ingenuity. Were an alien species to clandestinely survey our species for reports back to the mothership, it might look something like this.
“To the Wonder” is bookended by more visually ostentatious forays to France — in particular, the imposing granite island of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy (the literal “wonder” of the title). But Bartlesville is the movie’s true star, against which Malick unfolds the most interior drama of his career — a story of a man and a woman, of passion’s bloom and that bloom’s subsequent fall.
The man (played by Ben Affleck) is, like Malick himself, a seeker — an environmental engineer (a fitting alter ego for a filmmaker so enamored of the earth and its natural splendors) who yearns for true love, but also to feel the touch of the Divine. That the movie is unabashed about this makes it an easy target for cynics, but then, Malick has always seemed to be reaching for a lost Eden in his films, sometimes naively (as in “The New World”), sometimes cosmically (as in “The Tree of Life”).
Like that last film, “To the Wonder” is an often dense scramble of images and associations, wordless glances and allusive voiceover narration. But the emotions are crystalline. Indeed, this is the first Malick movie since “Badlands” in which ordinary human problems loom as large as the moon and stars.
A MASTER MAKES A BLUNDER WITH ‘WONDER’
In an industrial medium, Terrence Malick aspires to Art, and it’s something of a miracle that the director, who typically takes anywhere from five to 20 years between films, has hit upon a streak of creative productivity after getting “The Tree of Life” out of his system. That said, “To the Wonder” is the sort of follow-up a critic most fears: a movie that reveals the flaws of the masterpiece that preceded it.
In this case, it demonstrates how slender Malick’s meditations seem onscreen without an ambitious creation-of-the-universe sequence to steer our reactions into deeper realms.
In theory, you could inject the Big Bang, followed by 20 minutes of dinosaurs and volcanoes and evolution, into pretty much any movie — say, “Ace Ventura” or a “Bourne Identity” sequel — and the whole thing would suddenly feel more substantial.
Still, you can only pull a stunt like that once. Absent such cosmic idea-aggrandizement, “To the Wonder” falls back upon the wispy concerns of its thinly drawn humans.
In the ’70s, when Malick made “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” the director had a reasonably sharp grasp on character, creating specific, clearly defined personas, and then allowing them to behave according to their own impulsive desires.
By contrast, the characters in his past four films feel like ants observed from far above, sometimes indistinguishable from one another (as in “The Thin Red Line”), their motives and behavior inviting rumination, but not communicated clearly enough for proper identification. With “The Tree of Life,” the themes — particularly, searching for meaning in the death of an innocent — inspired profound reflection, even though the characters (especially Sean Penn’s architect) remained hazily understood at best.
“To the Wonder” has big ideas on its mind as well: the fleeting passage of love, the unrequited nature of faith. But its construction thwarts rather than invites the opportunity to dive deep.
Though Malick developed the characters with his cast, loading the actors with myriad artistic, literary and philosophical references to absorb, little of that carries over in their performances. We must consult the press notes to learn the name of Ben Affleck’s character (Neil), what he is doing in France (turns out he’s a frustrated writer fleeing “a string of unhappy affairs”), that Olga Kurylenko is playing a Ukranian abandoned by her Parisian husband eight years earlier, etc.
Over the years, Malick has demonstrated that narrative matters less to him than the emotions and ideas dredged up.
Whereas his early films merely cut away from the action (and stars) to take in the environment, here Malick stops to smell every rosebud — whether jumping on the spongy sand that surrounds Mont-Saint- Michel or spinning, hands-outstretched, through tall Oklahoma fields.
In places, it feels almost like self-parody, a “Saturday Night Live” sendup of a Terrence Malick movie. Though beautiful for its spacious skies and amber waves of grain, the film exasperates by not giving us more. It’s as if Malick plucked a flower during the ripest period of his life, and now, unveiling its pressed remains years later, he expects that all of the attached insights and memories will translate. Sadly, cinema doesn’t work that way.
HAIL TERRY, FULL OF GRACE
Terrence Malick makes films about the search for God in a fallen world. In that respect, he could scarcely have a more sympathetic critic than yours truly — someone who clings fiercely, though not always easily, to his own Christian beliefs, and who knows all too well those challenging moments when God seems strangely absent, as though hiding behind the majesty of His creation. It is this mystery that
Malick addressed so urgently and magnificently in “The Tree of Life,” and it similarly informs “To the Wonder,” his ethereally beautiful and predictably polarizing film about the agony and ecstasy of love.
Reviewing “To the Wonder” from last fall’s Venice Film Festival, where it bowed to a chorus of jeers, I noted that Malick had forged a direct connection between religious devotion and romantic commitment. I revisited the film just a few weeks ago, though in between, something transpired that made my second viewing an even richer, more resonant experience: I got married.
Reader, I beg your indulgence, for Malick’s movies inspire nothing if not personal reactions. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend that everyone view “To the Wonder” in a state of connubial bliss, it will surely spark recognition in anyone who has felt that first flush of new love, or that piercing moment of clarity when the honeymoon is suddenly over.
Once the least prolific of major American filmmakers, Malick has entered a startlingly productive career phase, even as he has increasingly slipped the bonds of narrative convention. “To the Wonder” is a love poem composed of tremulous gestures, whispered endearments, meaningful glances, stolen kisses and quiet betrayals. You could call it a mosaic of the mundane, but it feels more like what one character describes as “an avalanche of tenderness.” From these delicate shards of memory and experience, Malick and a team of five editors weave a deceptively simple drama about a man (Ben Affleck) and woman (Olga Kurylenko) whose bond is tested long after their initial passion has worn off.
“It’s perhaps Malick’s simplest, most relatable evocation yet of paradise lost,” I wrote initially. But it wasn’t until my second viewing that I realized, in an early scene of Affleck and Kurylenko wandering about the cloister at Mont-Saint-Michel, just how explicitly the filmmaker is referencing Eden. Here, a modern-day Adam and Eve stand together in a garden of unspoiled beauty and solitude. The fall will come later, leaving them adrift on a tide of raw, unresolved emotions, as Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera dances feverishly around the question: Where did their love go?
Many films have captured the sensuousness of a lover’s caress, the rapture of two bodies in intimate communion. Few of them have quoted so extensively from “The Lorica of St. Patrick,” or confronted us with images of the weak and heavy-laden, served by a priest (Javier Bardem) who no longer has the courage of his spiritual convictions. Some have interpreted this subplot, and the rest of this achingly sincere movie, as Malick’s disavowal of his own faith. I’m not convinced. Skeptic or true believer, has any director done more to advance the simple notion that God is love?
“To the Wonder” Movie Trailer: