Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Marshall Bell, Charles Baker. (R, 109 mins)
After taking a 20-year sabbatical between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick seemed to inherit the "greatest living American filmmaker" title with the 1999 passing of Stanley Kubrick. All of his films, from his 1973 debut BADLANDS to 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE, are works of stunning beauty that are the singular and unique voice of a true auteur. Terrence Malick films are distinctly his. No one else makes Terrence Malick films the way Malick does, though some have come very close (Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a brilliant example). And indeed, other than Kubrick, it's possible that no other living American filmmaker is as universally lionized as Malick--even guys like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg aren't immune to criticism. With THE THIN RED LINE and particularly with the divisive THE NEW WORLD, to criticize Malick was to insult the very art of film itself. It was just not allowed, and anyone who didn't find Malick brilliant simply didn't "get it." Malick's fan base is one of the most fervently devoted in all of cinema, and if you spend enough time on film discussion boards, you'll inevitably see a Malick argument break out, with many of his base taking criticism very personally. In an era where film criticism is gradually being replaced by snark, nitpicking, and hate-watching, few other filmmakers inspire that level of undying devotion. On one hand, it's nice to see that kind of passion and thought-provoking discussion, but on the other, there's a fine line between sticking up for your guy and sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "La la la! Can't hear you!"
Olga Kurylenko stars as Marina, a Parisian in a whirlwind romance with American Neil (Ben Affleck) as the film opens. There's very little dialogue spoken directly by the actors--almost all of it is past-tense narration. When we first see Neil, Marina, and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chilline), who, unless I'm mistaken, is the only character referenced by name, Marina's narration states "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night." As they walk through the streets of Paris, Marina's voiceover continues: "Love makes us one. Two. One. I in you. You in me." This goes on for most of the film, though it quickly relocates to an anonymous suburb in Oklahoma, where Neil lives. Marina and Tatiana have a hard time adjusting to America, though Marina never seems to stop dancing and frolicking in the backyard, in the streets, or at the supermarket. Eventually, her visa expires and she leaves the unwilling-to-commit Neil, who reunites with his ex-girlfriend Jane (Rachel McAdams) for a short romance before Marina returns, without Tatiana, who's living in Paris with her father. Neil and Marina marry. Meanwhile, melancholy local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) has a crisis of faith and tries to re-establish his connection with God, a theme touched upon by the devoutly religious Jane, and also explored by Marina and Neil, who begin searching for their spiritual side when their marriage starts to crumble.
RED DESERT with its depictions of human alienation and loneliness in an increasingly industrialized world of homogenized familiarity. It's set and shot in Oklahoma but with the chain stores, fast-food joints, gas stations and Econo Lodges all over, it could be anywhere. Thankfully, Malick doesn't work in texting or Facebook, but that's probably because he isn't aware of those things. With his increasing disdain for characters and plot construction, it doesn't seem like Malick knows how people talk anymore. Malick's going to be 70 this year and the writing in TO THE WONDER sounds like he plagiarized the tear-smeared scribblings in an emo kid's journal. And it's even worse in the rare instances where there's actual spoken dialogue. Witness the scene where Jane's Italian friend (Romina Mondello) visits her in Oklahoma: she speaks and behaves like no human being would and it's the film's strongest indication that, like latter-day Kubrick, Terrence Malick probably doesn't get out much.
TO THE WONDER is a breathtakingly beautiful film, no question about it. When it hits DVD and Blu-ray, it'll be interesting to see if playing the chapter stops at random makes the slightest bit of difference. My advice: wait and watch the Blu-ray and hit the mute button. I have nothing but respect for this one-of-a-kind cinematic figure, but it's disheartening to see Terrence Malick making what looks and feels like a parody of a Terrence Malick film.