To The Wonder might be the first art-house Lifetime Channel movie of the week. As someone who loves all of Terence Malick’s work (Including The New World), I’m sad to report that he’s produced his first mediocre film. I would have preferred it if it was an outright failure of grand proportions, an abstract mess that reached for the stars yet plummets into the obscure void of pretentiousness, the way some felt about his masterpiece The Tree of Life.
Malick is famous for taking his time making his films and spending even more time between them doing who knows what? Meditating? Patiently waiting for the perfect time and place for his next project to present itself? Before To The Wonder, the shortest time between two of his films was five years, Badlands and Days of Heaven. The time he took between Days of Heaven and his next film The Thin Red Line? 20 years. Nowadays, as if bitten by the Woody Allen bug, he strives to make a new film almost once a year.
To The Wonder was finished in 2012, a year after The Tree of Life. According to IMDB, he has three films slated for release soon. Two in 2013 and his anticipated Tree of Life spin-off documentary about the birth and death of the universe in 2014. After directing only five films in almost forty years, why the sudden rush? He’s turning 70 this year, is he trying to push out as much as he can before he dies?
I remember an interview with Stanley Kubrick’s wife Christiane where she confessed that her husband was very jealous of Woody Allen, that he always wished he could release a new movie once a year. Contemplating To The Wonder, I don’t think that was such a good thing to be jealous of. Kubrick only made 13 films in his career. Looking over them, at least 9 are timeless masterpieces. Woody Allen made 40, 50? Who has time to count? Out of those, I can think of maybe 10 good films, 5 great films and not a single film I would count as a bona fide masterpiece (Small Time Crooks maybe? Just kidding.)
Some artists are meant to take their time to produce work that is worthy of them. To The Wonder feels like ectoplasmic remnants of The Tree of Life were reconstructed haphazardly into an abstract study on the nature of love. With sweeping glamour shots of attractive couples drifting along giant Oklahoman fields and Parisian landscapes and a large chunk of the dialogue being delivered via seductively whispered voice-over, it feels more like someone putting together a Terence Malick parody as opposed to an actual Malick film.
I couldn’t help but get a rushed and choppy feel out of it. Everything that made Tree of Life hypnotic, grand and free makes To The Wonder look oddly restrained and lost. The first ten minutes or so where a couple portrayed by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko drift around Paris looks like a Christian Dior or Calvin Klein ad. Pretty people looking gorgeous in front of French locations shot with breathtaking cinematography.
Affleck’s Neil takes Kurylenko’s Marina and her 10-year-old daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to Oklahoma with him (All of this information is taken from IMDB including the characters’ names, good luck pinpointing them in the film). From there, problems between them start to surface, although it’s hard to tell what they are specifically.
The rapid cut, fever dream style approach from The Tree of Life is also present here, without the slow-paced birth of the universe sequences to give the audience a bit of a breathing space. In The Tree of Life, this approach worked because it felt like we, as the audience were privy to the childhood memories of Sean Penn’s character. And like our own memories about that era in our lives, they were quick and drifting, like a long forgotten dream.
In To The Wonder, most of the time we see the aftermath of a confrontation, as if Malick edited out the real scenes and left in the beginning and end bits that are usually cut out of a more traditional narrative. This time, because of this approach, any development and sympathy we could feel towards the plight of the characters are thrown out of the window. This is especially apparent in Affleck’s character, who basically ends up as an expressionless male placeholder for the two lead women to fall in love with. This would have been a perfect role for Ryan "Screw you I refuse to emote" Gosling.
Marina and Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman Neil falls in love with while with Marina, are also tasked with looking glamorous via Emanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography, but at least they come fully equipped with their trademark Malickian voice-over. Affleck’s final role on screen is simply reduced to a handful of lines and glares.
Then there’s Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, a priest on the verge of a crisis of faith who sticks like a sore thumb in between this love triangle. Many dissenters of The Tree of Life claim that Sean Penn’s part was superfluous, Sean Penn himself among them, but I think the real blame can be put on Bardem’s character in To The Wonder.
I don’t know what Malick’s next films are going to be like, but perhaps taking things as slow as he did before was the right idea.