My TIFF 2012 experience got me very perplexed on Tuesday afternoon when I caught up with my most anticipated film: Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER. As expected, the film is introspective and non-linear. What I didn’t expect was how distant and hollow it would be.
The plot – and I use those words very loosely – is that of an unnamed couple played by Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck. They have an on-again/off-again relationship that begins in Europe and eventually moves to America. During one of their “off-again” moments, Affleck’s character moves on to a relationship with another unnamed woman played by Rachel McAdams. Through it all, Javier Bardem comes in and out as a Catholic priest offering spiritual guidance, and seemingly struggling with his faith himself.
Sound like a loose story structure? That’s because it is.
The film isn’t interested in relaying a narrative – which is fine considering how much I adore THE TREE OF LIFE. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t play as lush or as grand as the rest of Malick’s filmography, and thus the questions that it wants us to consider don’t have the cinematic muscle behind them that he usually brings. “That shot” is missing…
…The locusts in DAYS OF HEAVEN
…The tall blowing grass in THE THIN RED LINE
…Pocahontas wading through the river in THE NEW WORLD
…Brad Pitt cradling the baby’s foot in TREE OF LIFE
In their stead is a lot of very pretty pictures, but none that seems to have the same precision as what we’ve come to expect from Malick. In addition, where his previous pieces have been built on lyrical renderings of ordinary moments, many of the moments in TO THE WONDER feel staged and artificial.
For instance, there’s a moment where Ben Affleck’s character is absent-mindedly spinning an ornamental crystal ball on a countertop. Nothing we have seen in him up until then leads us to believe that he would own such a thing, nor that he would kill time playing with it. What little we see of Affleck lead me to believe that he might tap a pen while thinking…or toss pebbles. Not stand at a counter and spin a globe.
What’s more, very little is spoken in the film – more than three-quaters is whispered. Fine when you want to use it as voice-over, but I don’t understand why anyone would be whispering to each other standing in a field while the wind violently whips around them.
This film is an unrealized thesis, and my estimation is that it isn’t complete. There hasn’t been a concrete release date announced yet, and I have to believe that is because this film is still being shaped. Its appearances at TIFF and Venice could be a road test, and what ultimately hits theatres might look very different.
If not, that’s alright, but it will leave me of the opinion that this is Malick’s weakest film. It asks a good question or two, looks nifty, and sounds marvellous – but at the moment it is little more than a cinematic EP.