Saturday, August 31, 2013

To the Wonder Movie Review

“Weak people never bring anything to an end themselves. They wait for others to do it.”


There’s a reason I have such trouble remembering details from any of Terrence Malick’s films. He composes them with fleeting touches. There are no traditional movie scenes involving events or actions coupled with dialogue. These are the things that are easy to recall: “Remember that scene when so and so says…?” With Malick the best you get are snapshots that almost float freeform from one to another. They are like memories of a life remembered, says star Ben Affleck in one of the DVD extras. Even the one Malick film I’ve seen more than once, The Thin Red Line, stands in my memory more as a series of images in no particular order, but because there’s no real A to Z plot there’s no glue to hold it together in my mind.


For a man who made two films in the 70s and then waited twenty years for his third, that he now has made three films in less than ten years is remarkable. To the Wonder was released earlier this year and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Like his last film, The Tree of Life, it probably plays much better in a single sitting rather than broken up. It’s created as a total experience and not really as a story. It’s an experience that feels like floating through a dream after which you wake up and remember partial conversations and broken images.

To the Wonder is definitely more story centered than The Tree of Life, to the extent that there are two main characters played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, as a couple in love in Paris who then move to Oklahoma. The credits tell me their characters’ names are Neil and Marina, although I had no recollection of their names being used in dialogue. Also, the Oklahoma location only comes to me through extra material. Their relationship is defined cinematically through gorgeous cinematography (we expect nothing less from Malick’s films) by Emmanuel Lubezki again and editing. They capture moments during the magic hours of sunrise and sunset, using only natural and available lighting caught through windows for interiors or with the golden glow outside.

We get a sense from what Malick shows us that we are intruders into the most intimate moments of a romantic couple. Affleck spends most of the first half without expression and just when I began to think he’s incapable as an actor of expressing emotion without dialogue, I realized this was part of his character. Marina returns to France after her visa expires. Then Neil has a brief love affair with Jane (Rachel McAdams) before Marina returns and they marry. Neil begins to look more and more like he’s gotten in too deep over his head and the intimate glimpses transition from love to disdain. This is a portrait of the implosion of a relationship and marriage. Through it all, their local priest (Javier Bardem), a man who goes from home to home hearing people’s problems, struggles with his own faith, which is expressed in voiceover – another signature of Malick’s filmmaking style.

All throughout the film, I kept having the sensation that Malick didn’t write a script for the film. He obviously had ideas for a story and the characters, but the shooting process is more about capturing a moment that feels right. Behind the scenes interviews confirmed this theory. To the Wonder is far less experimental than The Tree of Life, but not nearly as fascinating or invigorating. It’s a sad and beautiful movie both for its images and its story. However, it never really captured my imagination as most of his other films always have.

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