By now, Terrence Malick has managed to gain an almost mythical reputation among film directors. The cynic in me tends to feel that his Kubrickian level of privacy, and the 20 year gap between his second and third features, has contributed to this just as much, if not more so than the actual quality of his output. Not to say his work is lacking in quality though, and it’s great to see that he’s becoming more and more prolific nowadays, with less than 2 years separating To the Wonder from his last film, The Tree of Life.
His methods of filming have also become the stuff of legend, reportedly shooting hours upon hours of material, only to cut it all down to a standard-length film in the editing room. Actors sign onto his films unknowing if they’ll actually appear in the final cut – the likes of Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Sheen all shot scenes for To the Wonder, none appear in the finished product.
To my taste, Malick films have become less appealing the more self-consciously arty they are. Badlands remains one of my all-time favourites, but compared with his recent films seems highly conventional. His dream-like style has evolved since then, and become something that is uniquely his. To try and reduce it to its bare bones, beautiful images of man and nature, accompanied by wondrous music and philosophical voiceover.
What is To the Wonder about then? If, just after seeing the film I was asked this by someone, I’m not sure how I would answer. “It’s a romance? I suppose” is one possibility.
That a Malick film would defy genre is to be expected, but upon first viewing, To the Wonder seems to lack anything even vaguely resembling a coherent plot. Who are these characters? We don’t know. Ben Affleck barely even speaks.
We begin with scenes of Affleck and Olga Kurylenko in France, after a while he asks her to come and live with him in the United States. Kurylenko provides slow, vague statements in French as voiceover throughout such as “love makes us one”. Upon their return, Affleck starts interacting with an American girl, played by Rachel McAdams.
Later on in the film, a priest played by Javier Bardem appears and takes over the voiceover (in Spanish now), with comments directed at god, for example: ”teach us where to seek you”.
Onto Malick’s greatest strength; beautiful images, To the Wonder certainly has plenty of those, it has lots of beautiful music to accompany them too (from many well-known composers). Basking in these might be fine for a while, but over two hours, it just isn’t enough.
The Tree of Life polarised audiences more than any of his previous films, but still won the Palm D’Or and received many Oscar nominations. I liked some, but not all of it myself (The New World didn’t work for me either), with To the Wonder though, might the mythical-Malick bubble be burst for his more ardent fans?