To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick)
!! CAUTION !!
Having put an end to his reputation as a low-profile recluse by following two decades of silence with the release of four movies in fourteen years, Terrence Malick is now certifiably churnin’ ’em out, by his standards anyway. The legendary director’s latest Windows Media Player visualization goes a long way toward explaining why that may not be such a blessing; it’s nice that he chooses in To the Wonder to favor a sensory, impressionistic approach to regular life, rather than assigning his specific pretensions and fixations to a weighty premise they can’t really hold (as in The Tree of Life), but this hazy, astonishingly superficial and pouty film version of a bad poetry book is only an improvement insofar as it lives or dies by what viewers bring to it rather than dictating much of anything to them. And I do mean anything.
To the Wonder is, to these eyes at least, a front-to-back chronicle of a bad relationship: courtship, the exotica of distance from former obligations, the stormy humdrum of new obligations, a lot of sexy times and punchy kicky times shot and edited like they’re part of a DeBeers ad, eventually slammed doors and willful misunderstanding, the gradual loss of liberation. I guess. It’s all very ethereal in intent, trite in impact — anchored by a stony, unfeeling Ben Affleck and the alternately airy and manic Olga Kurylenko. Neither has a handle on their characters because there’s nothing there to handle. Malick intends us to see all this as moving, shaking shorthand for what it is to love and to lose or to be so out of touch with oneself, as Affleck’s full-time charmer is here, that beauty slips from one’s grasp. The problem is that these things would be more interesting and affecting if they were specific, rather than relying on the idea of a simple thread that runs through everybody — a love story that’s Universal because it’s too vague to mean anything, or frankly to require much thought from artist or viewer. (Thoughts besides, as a friend pointed out, “I really want some Sonic now.”)
Malick’s self-conscious prettiness, expressed with liberal use of rapidly moving camera shots, warm lighting and a sort of benign sense of abstraction, therefore subsumes all semblance of uniqueness or value to the premise; even though his odd, fast-cut editing style could undoubtedly be used to tell a story well, he circumvents any benefit by not bothering to write one and underlining every clouded, so-very-serious point with painful voiceover. The voices are psychobabble and pat mooniness of the worst kind; they will linger in the mind even less than the visual body of the film itself. Yet worst of all, To the Wonder is still all anchored too much in convention to qualify as an adventurous or avant garde production — it might play at being a lopsided or emotionally overpowered look at quiet and charged moments, but in the end it’s a divorce drama steeped in the flowery language of the greeting card, the cinematic aloofness of the cotton commercial.
Malick has been working with Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the best cinematographers in the world, for some time now, and there’s no doubt that those coming to To the Wonder to revel in the beauty of his work will find as much to galvanize them as they did in The Tree of Life. But despite such ample technical and photographic accomplishments, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Malick makes movies this way so quickly now because it’s easy for him — there doesn’t seem to be much imagination or real communication of passion here. It’s like the awful, terminally vague flashback scenes from Her stretched to feature length. (Perhaps Malick should be writing those greeting-card form letters from that movie; it would certainly fit in with his dialogue.)
A necessary caveat here is that I personally don’t pretend to understand the deeper spiritual themes of Malick’s recent films, here represented in a subplot of sorts by Javier Bardem as a pastor, because it’s just not my department (for what it’s worth, I at least related to this more than Tree, the insipid, half-baked spiritualism of which irked me endlessly), but there has simply got to be a better way to express them than through all this giddily trite New Age stuff. Everything about Badlands and Days of Heaven reflected impeccable judgment, the sensibility and inspired creativity of youth; films like To the Wonder seem to result from no judgment — or restraint — at all.