To The Wonder Review: Terrence Malick Dreams a Dream

It may be minor-Malick, but it’s still far better than absent-Malick.

rating: 4

Terrence Malick, the man who at one point had made only 4 films in 32 years (including a twenty year hiatus between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), has somehow now, at age 68, found himself in the most productive period of his filmmaking career. 2011 saw the long gestating Tree of Life win Cannes€™ Palme d€™Or, and so far 2013 looks like it could potentially see as many as three (three!) new projects from the reclusive director. While cinephiles around the world undoubtably rejoice at Malick€™s newfound productivity, having more Malick does create a sort of problem. While it€™s great to see such a unique filmmaker churning out work like never before, the short distance between films has made it much easier to nitpick and critique his new films in places we may not have otherwise. Which brings us to Malick€™s 2012 offering, the romantic dream piece To The Wonder. To The Wonder is a sort of memory-dream of a woman, Marina, (Olga Kurylenko) and man, Neil, (Ben Affleck) who meet and fall in love in Paris, move back to his native Oklahoma, and experience a series of dramatic ups and downs as they struggle to understand and maintain their love for one another. Javier Bardem wanders in and out of the film as local priest Father Quintana, questioning his spirituality in the face of a silent God, and Rachel McAdams surfaces briefly as a former love interest for Neil. The summary I€™ve just given you is probably more formed then the plot inside of the actual film, although, as is typical with Malick, it€™s the experience that matters. If you€™ve seen any of Malick€™s recent films, you probably already know how you€™ll feel about To The Wonder. Malick is a director who works for some and doesn€™t for others, but here, he€™s drifting even further away any semblance of traditional narrative structure and deeper into his own singular style. Sometimes that€™s a good thing, and the film is able to draw out some powerful, nameless emotions through its endless dance of images and sounds. Other times you wonder if a slightly more focused approach could€™ve produced a tighter, more effective piece of work. In Wonder, you can feel both ways, sometimes almost simultaneously. While Wonder shares some of Tree of Life€™s DNA - gorgeous images of man€™s relationship with nature, accompanied with musical overtures and narration instead of regular dialogue and formal €œscenes€ - it€™s a much more abstract piece of work than it€™s predecessor. Pieces of Marina and Neil€™s relationship are blended with memories, dreams, and other impressions and images. Some of these moments work, other don€™t, and still others are extended passages of Affleck and McAdams watching buffalos. It€™s best not to try to make sense of them all as they happen, but rather, to let the film sort of wash over you and feel your way through it. To The Wonder also branches out further on Tree of Life€™s spiritual musings. The difficulty that Marina and Neil experience in maintaining the intensity of their love is paralleled by Father Quintana€™s difficulty with trying to love a God that seems so absent in his every day life. In both cases, Malick finds his answers in the harmony of nature, a beautiful system only corrupted by the issues man brings into it. Beyond Malick€™s style (if, of course, you can move past it), To The Wonder features some truly inspired performances. Kurylenko is especially magical as Marina, who spends so much of the film is a sort of ballet with her surroundings, be they the muddy beaches of France or the supermarkets of Oklahoma. She€™s able to convey so much through her body language and face, especially when the relationship sours, that the lack of spoken words doesn€™t usually matter. Affleck, on the other hand, is regulated to a much steadier role, brooding around as a strong, silent type with serious commitment issues. If there€™s an award for outstanding performance by a chin and jawline, he€™s got it locked up this year. It€™s sort of ironic To The Wonder is destined to be considered a piece of experimental cinema, because in actuality Malick isn€™t doing anything radical. He€™s actually simplifying things. This is a film that boils down cinema to it€™s most basic form: images and sounds, arranged in a specific order to achieve meaning. And while there are rough patches, loose ends and meanderings, the overall product is still something to behold. It may be minor-Malick, but it€™s still far better than absent-Malick. To The Wonder currently has no UK or US release set.
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David Braga lives in Boston, MA, where he watches movies, football, and enjoys a healthy amount of beer. It's a tough life, but someone has to live it.