Thursday, May 2, 2013

Disconnected: A review of "To the Wonder"

The Tree of Life was my favorite film of 2011. By far. I proudly stand by that statement even now. The more I think about it, the more it grows in stature for me. It didn't strike a chord with many people, like it did with me, but it certainly had its champions. Bottom line, I felt like Terrence Malick was really onto something. And luckily for us, the past few years Terrence Malick has been on a creative tear. It started with ToL and it continues with To the Wonder. It's the quickest turnaround he's ever had in his film career and he's shot two more films since he finished "Wonder." There's also his upcoming documentary "Voyage of Time." Needless to say, we got a whole lot of Malick to come. But, if "To the Wonder" is any indication of the direction he's going, is it a good thing that he's making films faster than he ever did before?

Before "Tree of Life", Malick always had a great backbone of a story to work with which allowed him to get as experimental as he wanted. There's a story in Badlands and Days of Heaven. There's narrative you're following even if it's not told in a typical way. But starting with Tree of Life, Malick threw away the narrative and went straight for emotion. A tone poem. In "The Tree of Life,", Malick was filled with big ideas. Ideas that were as big as ideas could get.

Now "To the Wonder" has big emotions, but not very many ideas. Instead, we're left with this couple played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko. They fall deeply in love in France, but when they move to Oklahoma, the relationship dries out slowly. They break up. Neil (Affleck) hooks up with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) while Marina (Kurylenko) is miserable and alone in Paris. When she comes back to Oklahoma, she and Neil get married, but they clearly aren't what they once were.

And what we see is a relationship in fast-forward. The good times feel as if they are fleeting, like heartbreak is inevitable. And like Tree of Life, there's a nostalgic feeling to it. Clearly, Malick is drawing from past experiences. This is, in many ways, a personal story. And like "Life," he puts his thoughts and memories up there on screen without necessarily giving those thoughts a strict coherence. "To the Wonder" feels like it has a lot to say about love, about relationships, about this relationship in particular, but unlike "Tree of Life," it doesn't really know how to express these emotions. In a way, that's intriguing in itself, but it's also extremely frustrating. It's not that we need to be told the whole story, but it feels like Malick is hiding something, emotionally. In "Tree of Life," it felt like he held nothing back. This time, there's a hesitance there. Following his boldest, most audacious film, he gives us his most contemplative film filled with uncertainty. Perhaps he's doing that on purpose, but there's a point where it just stops being compelling.

See, the first half of the film actually works really well in describing these feelings and exploring this relationship. But once Marina goes back to Paris with her daughter, the film kinda feels like it's struggling to find its way. The only really intriguing parts from here on out are the moments with Javier Bardem.

Javier Bardem's character deserves a movie all by himself. In fact, I could watch a tone poem just about this lonely priest who is constantly questioning God, his savior. He loves him, but he's found no evidence of him. And he's incredibly alone. He tries to help these people in Oklahoma, but he's not truly engaged with them. He tries to play the part by reading them passages, talking to them, but there's no real connection there. Occasionally he crosses paths with Marina and Neil, but his story feels separate. While there's a loose thematic connection of love and loss, in this case, the love of his savior, it just doesn't feel like this story connects as seamlessly as it could. I felt there had to be something more here, that it could've went even deeper.

Which is strange to say in a Malick film, since he tries to go as deep as possible. But it seems like, this time around, the film just doesn't have a central focus. It feels like Malick has something more to say about these characters and their relationship, but he doesn't say it. There's just this collection of narrative thoughts that don't really distinguish themselves from past Malick films. At the end, I felt like Marina's daughter. Yes, this is a Terrence Malick film, but something is missing. Something that made his other films so special and such a joy to watch. Here, there's just this meandering, aimless feeling. I still admire the film, to a fault, but whereas Malick would often find something beautiful in the editing room with his other films, it just feels like he couldn't quite pull it off this time around. So while the end result may be meaningful to him, it fails to connect. Not that it fails to connect with the audience, rather, I think the film fails to connect with itself.

Maybe it was a good thing that Malick took a long time between films before. Maybe he needed all that extra time to really focus and put his heart into that one project at that point in time. It doesn't feel like he does that here and I worry his other films may suffer from the same problem if they are as experimental as this one is. Actors keep talking about how great Malick's scripts are, yet he insists on turning his films into something entirely different in the editing room. I'm not trying to imply that I want a more conventional Malick film, but "unconventional Malick" is actually beginning to feel... conventional. 

Grade: C

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