Sunday, September 01, 2013

To the Wonder

To the Wonder is in an objective sense Terrence Malick's worst film, but for me a discussion of Malick's worst is like talking about the worst de Kooning or the worst R.E.M. album. Malick is the only transcendentalist in mainstream American cinema, the only American director to reach a wide audience while giving pure image and sound and a vision of connectedness a remarkable degree of primacy over character and plot. All of Malick's films until now (with the exception of parts of The Tree of Life) have taken place in some part of the past and usually far from a settled, civilized life. To the Wonder takes place in present-day Middle America (mostly), and it is in considering how Malick's concerns and stylistic choices collides with the 21st century that we run into the question of whether he has created a film that really suits his artistic needs.

The central relationship in To the Wonder is a vital and tumultuous one. We begin in Europe where an American named Neil (Ben Affleck) is traveling with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). The two are obviously in love, though we never find out exactly how long they've been together or how they met. Marina narrates in hushed French, offering no concrete information but rather a running discourse on love, God, and the magic of her connection with Neil. We soon learn that Marina has a daughter (lively Tatiana Chiliene) she raises mostly on her own, and the three are soon bound for Oklahoma and a new life together. I like to imagine that this Oklahoma is a sort of cousin to the plains of Days of Heaven; there are still glimpses of the land here and there but much of it has been overrun by housing tracts and the usual suburban sprawl. Development and drilling have led to some sort of environmental crisis which Neil is either working to document, conceal, or alleviate. It isn't clear exactly what Neil is doing traipsing around in muddy water with a concerned expression, but there are numerous scenes of him talking to concerned people who describe a series of health problems ("Even the dog is acting funny.") and the fact that they can't afford to move elsewhere. These events occur on the side of the movie, while in the foreground Malick relates the story of Marina and Tatiana's unhappiness. Tatiana can't be blamed for not adjusting to a new country and a new school, but Marina's happiness is more of a clouding of the soul. She yearns for a truer connection with Neil, but since almost all of their dialogue is elided in favor of voice-over it is impossible to better understand what the problem is or who's to blame.

Olga Kurylenko's Marina is a sort of Diet Coke version of the character Jessica Chastain played in The Tree of Life. Chastain was the embodiement of the word's mysteries, but she was also a mother and a wife and someone who experienced loss. Kurylenko doesn't have such meaty stuff to work with here (though who knows what Malick cut out), but instead a great deal of wandering around an inexplicably empty house, twirling, and unhappy voice-over. (Yes, I get the idea that Malick's characters relate to each other like dancers. Something dramatic still has to motivate that movement.) With Marina gone back to Europe Neil has a brief relationship with a local woman (Rachel McAdams) before a chance to find true love again comes along, but I'm not sure that Malick hasn't exhausted what he has to say by this point. The most annoying thing about To the Wonder is the way it privileges the sadness of its characters while others are in crisis all around them. Where is the narration for those sickened by the environmental damage that Neil works in and around? They clearly have needs and stories to tell but they exist in the world of the film only as a representation of the Malick's idea that people can't stop messing up the world. In one of the strangest scenes an obviously ill woman knocks on the door of a local priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), whom we see hiding inside his house. Why doesn't he come out?

Let's say a few more words about Bardem's Father Quintana, a sort of infuriating sideshow to the main action. Quintana is going through a spiritual crisis, we learn in voice-over, and is unable to connect to the power of God the way he once did. He performs his duties in a sort of funk and can barely manage to interact with the leaders of his church or those he visits in the parish. Once again we're presented with a Big Idea (the absence of God) that's dramatically underpowered and that makes the character seem a little ridiculous in the presence of so much need all around him. Quintana has nothing to do with the story of Neil and Marina until very late in the film and even then Malick won't let the movie settle down to engage with the ideas he has presented. To the Wonder becomes a frustrating, affected puzzle-box of a movie that leaves one wondering what has just happened in a way that Malick's other films don't. I'll do Malick the favor of admitting that the question of intent versus execution can't be answered. That is, it's impossible to know how the movie that emerged from a lengthy editing process (which excised performances by Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Sheen) matched the one that Malick had in his head.

I didn't hate To the Wonder. I'm both fascinated with and disappointed by it. While the questions Malick asks about love and our connection to God are important ones, I do wish he had let modern life push in a little more. Malick's upcoming films reportedly include footage shot at music festivals in Austin, Texas and after seeing To the Wonder I can't help but ask what he will make of the Arcade Fire.

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