With Tree of Life's release in 2011, To The Wonder is the fastest turn around made by the mysterious, maverick American film-maker Terrence Malick in his career. It's a conflicting experience that on the one hand is a poignant examination of the intrinsic 'decay' underwriting American society (and therefore identity) in contrast to 'old world' Europe. On the other hand it's a waffling, bloated, pretentious mess. After vacationing in Mont Saint-Michel, Neil (Ben Affleck) asks his partner Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to move from France to Oklahoma, U.S.A. Their transition from Europe to middle America isn't easy and sees Marina reach out to a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem) and fellow exile, struggling with his vocation in the face of the condemnation that surrounds him. As ties between Neil and Marina are stretched, he renews a friendship with a childhood friend, Jane (McAdams). Malick is a truly cinematic story teller. His composition of the world in the lens is stunning. Malick's entire oeuvre is more about texture than narrative details. His previous works are epic in their philosophical exploration through dramatically rich subjects (Tree of Life: coming of age & family | The Thin Red Line: War | The New World: civilisation); which ultimately suited his meandering, painterly approach. Unfortunately, the lightning turn around shines the spotlight onto the stylistic tropes of what makes a 'Malick' film. And the relatively light source material and (assumed) purpose of the film is suffocated by the repetitiousness of his languid cinematographic gaze. Whether its frolicking on the dark sand of Mont Saint-Michel, caressing the sun drenched wheat of the rolling Oklahoma downs or even Affleck explaining 'magic hour' to Kurylenko's daughter; it's an evocative but empty beauty. The character's names aren't important, you barely register their identity as much as what you can attempt to ascertain from their hierarchical position in the frame.
The performers must surrender to their ability to project an inner struggle. For actors like Affleck and McAdams it's refreshing to see them in relatively silent roles, conveying emotion gesturally. They are even restrained in how they stalk through the frame; purposefully but always with grace. By far the most interesting character of the work is Bardem's lost priest. He has to sift through the rot that abounds trying to see the slivers of beauty within the poorly constructed, now dilapidated, mass produced suburbia that virally spread around middle America industry. Bardem's quiet intensity focuses the narrative, and attempts to repair the damage he observes. However, Malick really only has eyes for Kurylenko. He obsessively courts her pixie like presence as humanity in appreciation of the marks of humanity that last. In contrast, she's the beautiful organic presence in the face of WALLMART's clinical isles, or suburban cloned landscape.
Every element of this film conjures rabidly positive and vehemently negative ammunition that one could wax lyrical on. This is the frustratingly slippery, interchangeable position on which this reviewer stands on Malick's latest effort.
To the Wonder feels like a caricature coveting Malick's previously towering pieces of visual art. However there's more refined, contemplative poetry in this relative misstep than in a hundred Hollywood studio films.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.