There’s no American director who inspires greater devotion than Terrence Malick, as I discovered when I wrote a less than favorable review of “The New World” (“all is diffuse, gauzy, insubstantial, underwhelming”). There is also very little middle ground when it comes to his achievements.
I enjoyed “Badlands” back in the day but that was before Malick found religion — marrying a fastidious craftsmanship to particularly icky form of transcendentalism in “Days of Heaven,” a movie distinguished mainly by its pioneering use of Dolby sound. “The Thin Red Line,” the production with which the artist broke his 20-year silence, was so strange (a metaphysical platoon saga melding battlefield confusion with an Emersonian meditation on the nature of nature) that I had to appreciate it, but “The Tree of Life,” a symphonic praise-song in which Malick went one on one with God and Stanley Kubrick, and comes up short, struck me as too pompous and genteel to be truly crazy. Dems my sentiments; sufficient to be burnt at the stake in some counties.
“To the Wonder,” which I saw at an amazingly empty press screening last year in Toronto, is less overweening than the mighty “Tree”; it’s sadder and in some ways more tolerable. All of Malick’s movies, even “Badlands,” are evocations of paradise lost, which is surely a factor in the appeal he has for his cinephile fan base. (The visions don’t work for me but I can see how they evoke a vanished — or imaginary — Golden Age of the Movies.) “To the Wonder,” which Variety describes as “quasi-autobiographical,” is so unabashedly maudlin and vulnerable that it’s difficult to generate much animus. The movie may be a two-ton gossamer web, but it’s spun from gossamer none the less.
Where “The Tree of Life” was sanctimonious, “To the Wonder” is about the failure of sanctimony. A terminally inexpressive American in Paris (Ben Affleck) woos and wins a pathologically vivacious fairytale princess (Ukrainian beauty and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), only to lose it all when he brings his exotic trophy back to dullest Oklahoma.
At first her soul addresses his in verse: “Newborn I open my eyes. I melt into the eternal night. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You’ve brought me back to life.”Jawohl! And, initially, she digs Oklahoma as well — the land is “calm,” “honest,” and “rich.” (On to the Wonder Bread.) But girls will be girls and inevitably, to paraphrase Milton, the infernal serpent of ennui deceives the mother of mankind. Adding to the solemn anguish, Javier Bardem stalks through the proceedings as a local padre in spiritual crisis.
Shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, “To the Wonder” doesn’t lack for visual ideas, although not all are equally good. (Given the chance, Malick would gild Andrew Wyeth’s “Lily Pads.”) The imagistic takeaway are the scenes of Kurylenko skipping and twirling in the late afternoon light as moony Affleck hovers dumbstruck in her presence — a bystander in his own life, even as it falls apart. Considering the primacy of the visual and a narrative as elemental as the plot of Murnau’s “Sunrise,” “To the Wonder” would have been better shot silent, or at least without dialogue. But where God may be silent, Malick is never. The dialogue seems recited from greeting cards and the voiceover is unrelenting. Let the true believers wallow… or despair.