Coming off the heels of his 2011 Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's latest film To The Wonder is just as mysterious but poorly executed. The hallmarks of Malick's work are all present, but it almost feels like another director making a film in the style of Terrence Malick.
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem, To The Wonder follows the romantic relations between Affleck and a French woman (played by Kurylenko) as they decide to move to America together with her 10 year old daughter. Affleck is like a father to the daughter of the woman he loves, but he refuses to marry her - and as a result, their relationship suffers. Kurylenko and her daughter begin to feel like outsiders as they lack friends and seem to have a language barrier, so they return to France without Affleck. While Affleck is on his own, he runs into an old flame played by Rachel McAdams and their relationship begins to rekindle. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, the soul-searching priest in the area, is trying to find God in the world around him, but is feeling lost as he fails to see the love of Christ in his daily life.
The problem with this film is a true sense of aimlessness. To The Wonder isn't particularly confusing, but it is tiresome in its form and lifeless in its plot. The film is semi-autobiographical, with Malick being the Ben Affleck character, but it's a shame that this connection doesn't foster a more energetic look at life. It would be easy to compare Malick's latest film (on plot alone) to Roberto Rossellini's masterpiece Journey To Italy (1954), but the form of the film renders the plot meaningless. Journey To Italy follows a British couple as they go on a vacation to Italy. Majority of Rossellini's film follows the wife as she goes to museums by herself and looks at art that informs her on her dissolving marriage - which is, at a distance, very similar to the plot of To The Wonder. Javier Bardem's wing of the film is almost entirely out of place - excluding his voiceover concerning loving your spouse as Christ loved the Church. However, Bardem's portion of the film is the most interesting and captivating as it harkens back to the powerful soul-searching that The Tree of Life presented, but without being a self-remake on Malick's part. At the same time, it is easy to compare Bardem's story to Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1961), which is entirely about a priest who is disturbed by the world around him as he experiences God's silence.
Many of the performances in the film feel dishonest at times as emotions propel themselves into the physical realm of acting. Similar performances were briefly seen in The Tree of Life, and seem to be the product of actors being told not to speak. At one point, Ben Affleck is at a swimming pool with his wife and is blatantly staring at another woman while Olga silently tries to get his attention. Again, in another scene Ben Affleck is helping Olga move boxes into their new home and they look completely lost - as people on a movie set who don't know what they're supposed to be doing sometimes do.
Throughout To The Wonder, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures the essence of a Malick film - but over and over again - to the point that everything feels the same. The camera gives us very few emotional peaks, because the cinematography is constantly peaking and flaunting at times. The film does, however, have a powerful sense of verisimilitude - even more so than The Tree of Life - and part of this is due to the use of only natural lighting. There were no lights on set, just normal lights at locations (lamps etc) or the Sun. Particularly following The Tree of Life, there was a sense in my mind that Malick was borrowing from the Dogme 95 movement with the jump cuts he would use in the same fashion as that of Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg. To The Wonder, on a technical standpoint, almost verifies this homage of form as the camera is almost never on a tripod and no lights were used on set (two of the rules of the Dogme 95 movement). The film even begins with the quality of a Dogme 95 movie as the first images are from the perspective of Ben Affleck's character's SD hand-cam. Similar to The Tree of Life, Malick's usage of jump-cuts to enhance performances feels very Dogme 95-esque. Going back to the dishonest performances throughout the film, this may be Malick's attempt to borrow a directing style from Lars von Trier who had his actors in Melancholia do whatever they wanted for a few scenes - but Trier managed to capture honesty and authenticity with this technique (specifically in the wedding reception scene).
It is interesting that To The Wonder defies, in several ways, the image that I had formed of what a Malick film could be. It begins with grainy standard definition hand-cam footage (the exact opposite of what is generally expected from a Malick film), the first lines of dialogue (and nearly the entire film) are in French, and the film takes place in the modern world. Characters use laptops and Skype with one another - a digital world that seems like the antithesis of Malick. Perhaps the digital movement is the antithesis of Malick and he is making a statement about our lack of connection with the world - even though we are told that technology brings us closer to one another.
As I began, this is a mysterious film, but it is ambitious regardless of its flaws. The story clearly came together in the editing room - which is remarkable, but it often shows. In the closing credits, at one point it says that unused footage from The Tree of Life was used in this film - which only enhances the spur-of-the-moment vibe to this production. This is a very idiosyncratic film from a very idiosyncratic man, but it has its rewards within its enigmas.
My ranking: 2.3/5