Lacking in any “Wonder”

to the wonder

To The Wonder

dir. Terrence Malick

Release Date: Apr 19, 13

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If you plan on seeing To the Wonder, the new film by reclusive auteur Terrence Malick, I recommend that you instead stay home and repeatedly beat yourself in the face with your left shoe. It’s a similar experience that will save you $10 and two hours of your life. I have thus far loved or liked all of Malick’s films, but I need to call bullshit when I see it. To the Wonder is bullshit.

Every great director is allowed at least one misfire in his catalog, the film so bad it has to be the product of genius. Antonioni had Zabriskie Point. Aronofsky made The Fountain. It took a director as lauded as Martin Brest to bring us Gigli. Now we have To the Wonder, a film that seems like a slap in the face to those of us who have long defended Malick’s work. For those who loved The Tree of Life, both hailed as the best film of 2011 and widely hated by nearly everyone I know personally, To the Wonder is the worst representation of all of Malick’s tics and narrative obsessions. Parts of it play like a Funny or Die parody of his work, likely called The Twee of Life.

Everything in To the Wonder is a mistranslated facsimile from his previous successes, an echo of the grand symphony that was The Tree of Life, and even the casting feels like it’s on repeat. Fittingly, the film’s story is delivered through awkward translations of other languages. Olga Kurylenko, who comes the closest to resembling a character/discernible human being in the film, asks through voiceover, “What is this love that loves us?” In addition to being pop religiosity at its worst, the question recalls Jessica Chastain’s grand monologues about grace, paling in comparison.

Instead of sounding profound, Kurylenko reminded me of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, who has discovered the grand meanings of the universe but can’t put them into words. The horror of To the Wonder is that Terrence Malick is on to something about nature and God’s involvement with the world, but he doesn’t bother to communicate it to us. Instead, we’re left with half-whispered mumbo jumbo and shots of Ben Affleck looking sad and remote.

There’s a great litmus test here for whether you’ll enjoy To the Wonder. Do you love character motivations replaced with pensive shots of wheat? How about Olga Kurylenko dancing through a supermarket while mumbling in Jesus parables? Do you like your visual motifs endlessly repeated and beaten into the ground? Then To the Wonder is the movie for you!

Malick employed many of these effects (and some of the exact same shots) in The Tree of Life, but they were grounded in a real sense of intimacy and character. Here, I wasn’t even sure what their names were, and the principals often change their minds for no reason. Both Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams (the other romantic interest) fall out of love with Affleck for seemingly no reason. Kurylenko’s voiceover explains that Affleck rarely speaks, and McAdams claims that she feels like she doesn’t know him. This is true for us as well, and in addition to having almost no lines, the camera resists shooting Affleck’s face, often filming him from the waist down. He’s not a person. He’s a cipher for our fall from grace. How telling for the film.

The melodrama here is confined to celestial matters, and Javier Bardem (who plays an elegiac priest, the only kind Malick knows) explains the fissure through scripture. Bardem’s likely a stand-in for whatever scenes of actual dramatic tension were cut from the film to make room for barley, and as good of an actor as he is, Bardem can’t make up for the lack of an actual script. Next time, Malick needs to stop chopping away at his movies and actually film them.

The movie itself has little to say or add to Malick’s spiritual thesis that hasn’t already been said, and To the Wonder is like Kurylenko, wandering around and looking for a purpose. There’s no real plot, aside from the age old story of “Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back, Boy Loses Girl Again, Girl Bathes in Tall Grass,” and we leave the film as angry and lost as Sean Penn was during The Tree of Life. Some have explained the film’s emptiness as the product of a filmmaker who realizes he’s on the last legs of his career, attempting to churn out as many films as he can before The End. There are even rumors that Malick is dying of cancer. My guess is that he already has and his corpse directed the film for him, Weekend at Bernie’s-style. It would explain a lot.

In defending The Tree of Life, many champions of the film reminded its critics about how hard it must be to make a film about everything. David Denby once argued exactly the opposite, stating that we should never “underestimate the extraordinary difficulty of telling a good story straight.” If Malick wants to experiment, next time he should experiment with making sense.