Terrence Malick is a wonderful film maker. I have loved and/or admired each of his films I have seen (the only one I haven’t is Days of Heaven and I may get to correct that this weekend). He is a visual poet and philosopher and incredibly engaging filmmaker, and there is no one else quite like him operating in the mainstream film industry today.
All of which leads me to believe that To The Wonder was directed by Terence Mallyck. It feels like a student trying to make a Malick film and it is painful to watch at times. It’s filled with shots of people standing in cornfields starring in opposite directions, or someone walking out of a room as someone walks in, neither seeing each other. The faux-philosophical narration fails to enlighten, instead sounding like a student’s idea of what life should teach us.
As Malick’s career has progressed he has strayed further and further from a true narrative, never more so than here. The ‘story’ concerns two relationships Ben Affleck has, one with Olga Kurylenko, which bookends the films, and the other with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. We see Affleck spent time with these women, but never see what draws them to him. He is an empty presence, barely muttering a word throughout the film. The relationships ignite and breakdown though we are never really shown the reasons behind this, merely the facts that they have. At one point, Kurylenko explodes at Affleck, supposedly for the way he has treated her in the relationship but we are never shown anything to back up her point of view.
There is another story played out, that of a priest played by Javier Bardem, which is so loosely connected to the main story as to feel wildly out of place. I say this is a story, but it really isn’t, merely a collection of scenes as he visits prisoners and the elderly. Is he having a crisis of faith? Who knows? It’s tough to care.
The home Affleck builds in the non-descript town in (I guess) the mid-west never seems properly furnished. It contains a bed, a chair, a table, but often belongings are seen still in boxes. The house feels empty, it is doing an impression of a home. The same could be said of the film. It contains the elements but it never unpacks them, never allows us the emotional gateway that would turn these ‘relationships’ into Relationships. It remains empty.
Likewise, aside from an opening (and briefly closing) sequence at Mont St Michel in northern France, there is none of the beauty in the photography here that we’ve come to expect from Malick. He fails to find anything of interest to say about middle America, the houses, streets, concrete driveways and freshly erected fences are as starkly tedious as everything else here.
I don’t say any of this out of malice, merely disappointment. Malick is an incredibly talented filmmaker who is famed for taking a long time over his films, with gaps of a decade or more in many cases. To The Wonder comes out around 2 years after The Tree of Life and maybe he should have spent closer to 8 years on it.