Saturday, April 13, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: TO THE WONDER (2013)

(US - 2013)

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!"

Having said that, early responses to Malick's latest film, TO THE WONDER, seem to indicate the first sign of trouble in paradise for the director and his fans.  Since returning to filmmaking, Malick's work has become increasingly abstract and less character and plot-driven.  Beautiful visuals accompanied by ethereal, whispery, stream-of-consciousness narration have always been a distinct Malick trademark, but with TO THE WONDER, his focus is more on these sorts of dreamlike ruminations and it's only a matter of time before he abandons plot, characters, and actors altogether. 

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. 

This story is largely conveyed visually, with frequent nonsensical narration ("Enter me.  Show me how to love you" and "What is this love that loves us?"), that would be completely laughable to English-speaking audiences were it not mostly in French (for Kurylenko) or Spanish (for Bardem) with English subtitles (maybe French and Spanish audiences will find it just as terribly-written).  There's no denying that TO THE WONDER is a visually stunning film.  Malick and his NEW WORLD/TREE OF LIFE cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieve a very European view of suburban America, almost in a Michelangelo Antonioni or Wim Wenders way.  They and the constantly moving camera manage to find the visual beauty in fast-food restaurants, laundromats, appliance stores, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens, and even in a polluted lake or with the buzz of fluorescent lights and the hum of central air units.  In a way, I think this is partially Malick's homage to Antonioni's 1964 film 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.

I get what he was going after with the "together yet isolated" thing.  The religious stuff seems a little wedged in, but hey, whatever, it's his movie.  A lot of TO THE WONDER looks like it was shot on the fly (there's a few instances of passersby glancing at the camera) and Malick didn't really know what he wanted until he started putting it together.  TO THE WONDER was shot in 2010 and 2011 and it took Malick plus five credited editors to put it all together, with the narration (mostly Kurylenko and Bardem) then used to advance the "story."  When other filmmakers display an over-reliance on voiceover, it's a desperation Hail Mary move, but if you listen to Malick fans, when he does it, he's reinventing the rules of cinema. 

Regardless, even the most slavishly devoted Malick apologists seem to be rejecting TO THE WONDER, the general feeling being that Malick is simply going too far in his abandonment of conventional narrative.  He doesn't seem to know what to do with his actors:  Of the major stars, Bardem probably comes off best since he gets to play the closest thing resembling a well-rounded character.  You could make a drinking game out of how many times Kurylenko dances, turns and looks at the camera, and does another pirouette.  McAdams isn't in it enough to really make an impression, and Affleck, who had most of his dialogue cut, just looks confused, much like Sean Penn in the present-day scenes in THE TREE OF LIFE (it's worth noting that Penn later said he had no idea why he was even in the finished film).  Young Chilline turns in the most natural performance, since Malick mostly lets her simply be herself.  Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Michael Sheen all had co-starring roles in principal photography--all were left on the cutting room floor, further evidence to support the idea that Malick was just pulling the completed film out of his ass.  Sure, they got paid, but who wastes the time of five name actors?  Of course, like any piece of art, a film can evolve from its inception to completion, but if you're completely cutting people like Chastain and Weisz out of the film, then you simply didn't know what you wanted when you finished shooting, let alone started.  Malick also assembled star-packed casts for three subsequent films that are in various states of post-production (KNIGHT OF CUPS, due out later this year, plus VOYAGE OF TIME and a still-untitled third film), indicating an uncharacteristic burst of productivity for the notoriously sporadic director.  But who knows how many of those performances will get axed before the films are eventually released?

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.

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