Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: "To the Wonder"

Director: Terrence Malick
Runtime: 112 minutes

One of the most surprising things about To the Wonder, the sixth film from secretive director Terrence Malick, is that it opens with grainy digital footage from a camera phone. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the man's work knows that, even to detractors, his films are regarded as some of the most beautiful ever made. Yet the times they are a changin', as the opening seconds quietly let us know. Not only is To the Wonder Malick's first film shot with digital cameras, it is also his first film to take place in the present. It seems like a logical progression, as Malick becomes less and less concerned with concrete narratives. Yet if 2011's The Tree of Life was the director's most ambitious abstract feature, To the Wonder is easily his most intimate. As such, it's likely to baffle and delight, bore and exhilarate depending on how well you connect with Malick's stylistic progression over the years. 

Allegedly semi-autobiographical, Wonder's plot can be thought of as Malick's take on Blue Valentine, as it chronicles the various ups and downs of a relationship. We're first introduced to Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), in the early stages of a whirlwind romance that culminates with a trip to Mont St. Michel. It's an elegant and symbolically rich method of showing the (perhaps naive) innocence of their relationship. Marina, the more free-spirited of the two, dances through the incoming tide as Neil watches. Moments later, they embrace in one of the medieval stone courtyards of the famed castle. Their love is at its simplest, unencumbered by the distractions of the modern world. When they touch, it occurs with complete receptiveness. 

Marina and her young daughter move with Neil to Oklahoma. Though surrounded by trappings of the middle class, Marina is able to flourish in America, dancing in the wheat fields that are as vast as the blue sky above them. But, as sometimes happens, the harmony of Neil and Marina's relationship is ruptured by forces that are only barely hinted at. It's here that To the Wonder will most likely start to frustrate certain audience members. One never goes into a Malick movie expecting to be spoon-fed exposition. However, the motivations for the emotional developments (more so in the first half) can, at times, feel too distant and vague. As such, the earlier portions of romantic discord can feel more frustrating than engaging. In part, this stems from the fact that the problem seems to originate with Neil, yet the film is - despite a side venture featuring Rachel McAdams - more oriented around Marina. 

In the film's second half, Marina's voice over tells us that the weak-willed never have the courage to finish things. It's a valuable statement, one that taps into the seemingly out of the blue dissolutions between Neil and Marina, and then Neil and McAdams' Jane. Yet it comes so late that it's hard not to feel as though Malick has missed an opportunity to inject this insight earlier, and give Neil's actions a clearer through-line. Malick's characters rarely pop-out of the frame; they're simply woven into the greater tapestry of the film around them. But in To the Wonder, one can't help but feel the need for just a little more to work with when it comes to figuring these people out. The vision and scope here are so much smaller, despite the constant swooping shots of the sky and the horizon, but there are times when the film feels divided as to whether it wants to be intimate or epic. 

The strain to become an epic is felt most in the scenes involving local priest Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem). Though he interacts with both Neil and Marina on different occasions,  Malick also strives to give this man of God his own emotional and spiritual journey. Neil and Marina struggle with the emotional repercussions of their faltering romantic love, an area in which Fr. Quintana's spiritual advice can only go so far. Instead, his greater struggle is reconciling his uncertainty with his position, and his struggle to feel God's love, the love that reaches out without judgement or jealousy at all times. It's a journey that certainly has its moments, yet the balance between the two can't help but feel off-kilter. Whenever Quintana appears on screen, it's difficult not to wish that the momentum of the Neil and Marina story arc had been left undisturbed. Malick's goals with this side of the film are noble, yet they cry out to be explored as part of another film (either as the center or as a subplot). The thematic links make sense on paper, but in execution, they aren't quite as convincing.

Thankfully, To the Wonder is anchored in Neil and Marina's story, especially Marina's. In the film's second half, Marina comes further into the foreground, and the various aspects of the film's look at love - platonic, romantic, and spiritual - suddenly coalesce. Kurylenko is a true surprise here, and delivers a performance that ranks among the best in Malick's filmography. There are remnants of Jessica Chastain's gentle mother from The Tree of Life, yet Marina is very much her own modern woman. After so many disposable roles following her breakout turn in Quantum of Solace, it's refreshing to see her bring such sensitivity to the role. Marina is free-spirited  and at times childlike in her innocence and connection with nature, yet she is never distractingly childish. She's torn between her Catholic upbringing, and the almost primal sense of connection she feels to nature and its laws. It's a performance that is both subdued and radiant, effortlessly portrayed and captured. For a film that allegedly contained no true script during shooting, Marina feels like one of Malick's most structured characters. 

That same structure carries over into the film's later stretches, and helps To the Wonder stay true to its convictions. The film's last act has the potential to feel dragged-out and repetitive, yet instead it builds on everything that came before. To the Wonder may not touch The Tree of Life for overall quality, but its final half hour is certainly much more stirring at first glance. Despite the character-based issues earlier in the film, the conclusion here actually delivers on the ideas and themes that have been running underneath the beautiful images the entire time. Malick may take too long to let those ideas surface, but once he does, his film's intimacy finally starts to fit together. The voice over work feels most meaningful, as do the (typically strong) classical pieces that Malick has picked out for the soundtrack. Credit should also go to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for capturing the whole thing with such naturalistic beauty. There's a rawness to the imagery that, despite its kinship with Lubezki's work on The Tree of Life, has echoes of Malick's Badlands (another film with a romance set against the midwest). Like any of Malick's films, it deserves to be experienced on the big screen, if only to fully appreciate the sheer beauty of it all. 

Ultimately, that beauty will only go so far with many. The gap between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder is the shortest between any two Malick films, and some will likely argue that this acceleration has produced the director's weakest film. Yet for all of its flaws, there's so much to admire here that I find it hard to turn this film away. In the transition from The Tree of Life to To the Wonder, Malick had to descend from truly cosmic heights in order to take a stab at material so deeply rooted in emotional intimacy. And while the director may have stumbled on his way down, he has, to his credit, managed to land with grace. 

Grade: B

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