Not a Movie Snob - To The Wonder

Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 06:00 PM


To The Wonder

Terrance Malick's movies have a cognitive effect similar to the visual tracers that are left behind if you're in a brightly lit room and someone suddenly kills the lights. An imprint of whatever you were looking at will be stamped momentarily before it quickly fades, spectral-like, and the cloak of black is pulled down over your eyes. His films are like visual tracers of stories that once were, full of life and living, but are now only a faded stamp on the memory of the universe. This can explain why the narratives in Malick's films, and particularly in this film and The Tree of Life, seem disjointed or undisciplined. Memory is often disjointed and undisciplined, recalling events in fractured shards rather than in full form with straight line narratives. 

It's an odd way to experience a movie, especially for people who are used to three act structures, the conflict and resolution storytelling of mainstream moviemaking. It has a closer resemblance to the experimentation and innovation of art house cinema, particularly the European films of the 60's and 70's and the French New Wave movement spearheaded by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. That being said, To The Wonder does have a story, it has a plot, however freely it chooses to tell it.

Ben Affleck is a man who falls in love with a woman he meets while on vacation in Paris. He brings her and her daughter back to America and they carry on as new lovers do, with the passionate highs and lows and as her travel Visa is about to expire, they decide, rather than marry, to go their separate ways. He then meets another woman and has a fling with, but finds he is still emotionally committed to his French mademoiselle, who is going through a hard time as her daughter has left her to go live with her father. Affleck brings her back to America, where they marry and go through more ups and downs. Meanwhile a priest, played by Javier Bardem, who works the streets of his parish, spending much of his time with prostitutes, drug addicts and felons, is having a crises of faith, feeling separate from God.

These characters intermingle in the oceans of their lives, but in small ripples rather than great splashes and have no real bearing on the outcome of their respective journeys.

Malick is infamous for his very quirky directing style. Often working without a script, he will instead have his actors improvise a scenario, then, unbeknownst to them, leave the cameras rolling in between takes to capture their true emotions and interactions and use those in the finished film. Consider the shots of the three brothers playing in the fields and around their house in Tree of Life. Those weren't scripted scenes, they weren't instructed to do those things, Malick simply left the cameras on after he had said 'cut' and allowed the boys to be boys, thereby cultivating incredibly naturalist performances from first time actors.

Another thing Malick is known for is cutting whole sequences and characters out of his films. Many filmmakers will tell you that a movie is born in the editing room, but with no filmmaker is that statement more literal than with Terrance Malick. Ben Affleck recently said that filming To The Wonder was an odd experience because not only did he play a character who has almost no dialogue, but the actors in the film never knew what they hell was going on in the story or why. Instead Malick will film countless hours of film with a basic idea of what he'd like to do and then go through and piece out a story.

There's a famous story involving The Thin Red Line where actor Adrian Brody took his whole family to the premiere, all of them excited to see Adrian in his first starring role, only to find that his role had been cut down to no more than a few sentences and a couple minutes of screen time. Martin Sheen also had a fairly beefy role in that film that was cut out of the movie altogether. Respected Welsh actor Michael Sheen was completely cut out of To The Wonder. Malick doesn't do this to infuriate or punish an actor, he just keeps what he keeps and cuts what he cuts and doesn't care if you're a famous celebrity who makes millions of dollars a movie, if your character doesn't find a place in the cutting room, your character will hit the cutting room floor.

Terrance Malick's films tend to lend themselves to pretty passionate opinions. You'll rarely find a person who will say 'it was alright.' Most people will come out of a film of his loving it, or hating it. I'm definitely a lover. I think Malick is a consummate genius. I think he is way ahead of his time and that in future decades his work will be seen as some of the best examples of pure cinema these years had to offer. That being said, while I enjoyed To The Wonder and while Malick's genius shines through every frame, it's just too much like Tree of Life not to feel a little disappointed by.

There are certain Malick signatures in all of his films (with the possible exception of Badlands) that you come to expect from him: wind blowing through tall grass, meditations on life, death and spirituality, sweeping, floating cameras observing and considering the actions of the actors on screen. But each of his movie's has its own agenda and each its own story to tell: two kids on the run from the law, the senselessness of war, the discovery of new worlds. The Tree of Life and To The Wonder are in a lot of ways about the same things, told the same way. There are even certain shots and sequences that are almost identical in both films.

There's a lot to love and admire in both films, a lot to enjoy and while I love that Malick, after making only five films in 38 years, now has five films coming out just three years apart. It's just hard not to feel like To The Wonder is little more than a remake of his last film. A less ambitious, less profound one.

Slow, sincere, meditative, gorgeous, awesome, baffling, redundant.

Rating: ****

Affleck: "Do you have any idea what's going on in this movie?" 
Bardem: "I was hoping you did." 



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