Am I going crazy this week? This is the first time I’ve seen a Michael Bay movie and a Terrence Malick movie in the same week and ended up liking the Michael Bay movie and hating the Terrence Malick movie. Nevertheless, Terrence Malick’s latest film, little more than a montage of people walking away from the camera while vague narration waxes poetic, is his weakest by far.
Magnolia Pictures, the distributor for the film, describes it as the story of an American (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a Ukrainian divorcee (Olga Kurylenko) while traveling abroad. The two relocate to suburban Middle America where the free-spirited Ukrainian begins to wilt. The frustrated couple meanwhile become members of the Catholic parish led by a disillusioned priest (Javier Bardem). My brief paraphrasing of Magnolia’s synopsis probably contains more words than the entirety of Malick’s script.
This is Terrence Malick at his most self-indulgent. That means there are plenty of shots of people walking around and staring at shit while poetic narration and classical music plays in the background. There’s not much in the way of plot or story, and there isn’t much for the actors to do. The characters don’t say anything, and there isn’t much in the way of acting being captured on film here. Fairly reliable actors like Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams are little more than mannequins to be propped up in front of whatever scenery Malick finds interesting.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the incoherence and whimsy of To the Wonder. Malick has been pursuing this conclusion for the past forty years now. With Badlands, his first masterpiece, Malick told the straightforward story of two amorous serial killers who crisscrossed the Midwest before being apprehended by the Feds; the film was dialogue driven and the meditative aspects that defined Malick’s later work was limited to Sissy Spacek’s brief narration. With The Thin Red Line, Malick told a brilliant World War II yarn that relied heavily on poetic narration and gorgeously composed shots of the Pacific. However, his most recent effort, Tree of Life, represents how unfocused, and meditative a project can be and still function as a proper film.
With each successive film Malick became less interested with plot, less interested with dialogue, and less interested with action. With each new entry, his films increasingly tended to meander. With each passing decade, Malick indulged in creating works that were less like traditional films. The results were overwhelmingly positive until recently. With To the Wonder, Malick has simply wandered off into a world lacking in narrative or coherency.
Now, I understand what Malick is doing. He’s being completely introspective; with To the Wonder, he’s attempting to tell a film that operates the way human memory does. We don’t recall past experiences in rigidly constructed acts with perfectly memorized dialogue. People remember feelings; they remember seemingly insignificant details. Malick’s decision to eschew dialogue and focus on the characters wandering through an array of scenery while narration drones on in the background makes the film feel like a hazy reminiscence.
I’m positive that Malick accomplished what he set out to do here. I’m also certain that Malick acolytes will claim that this is the man’s finest film yet: the fulfillment of the promise made by his entire filmography up to this point. Malick is more of an artist than a storyteller, and people who prefer poetic ramblings to driven storytelling will enjoy To the Wonder.
However, I go to the movies to see good storytelling. I enjoy well-written screenplays, strong acting performances, and meticulously orchestrated scenes. I like to see people striving to tell a compelling story. To the Wonder represents the complete opposite of all of these things. It’s a complete ramble redeemed somewhat by Malick’s talent for finding aesthetic beauty in even the smallest of things.
I won’t go so far as to say To the Wonder is an awful movie, but it’s certainly a movie that most people will not enjoy. I found it to be plodding and infuriating. I’m aware of what Malick is doing, and yet, I’m not sure what he’s doing in this specific instance actually qualifies as filmmaking. It feels more like cinematic masturbation. Now that this great director has thoroughly indulged himself, he’ll hopefully get back to making more enthralling films like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line.