Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: "To the Wonder" Lacks the Malick Charm

Left to right: Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko
One of the biggest disappointments that most film fans have had in 2013 is from one of the oddest film making decisions in years. The notoriously reclusive director Terrence Malick, whose 2012 output alone features three films, has broken his streak of productivity. Once known for waiting 20 years between projects, he attempts to make up for lost time, starting with the film To the Wonder, which stars Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko as a married couple going through a rough period. What is it about this particular story that saw Malick, coming off of his highly acclaimed The Tree of Life, turn in one of the more underwhelming films of the year?

The most interesting aspect of To the Wonder is novelty. While this is only the second Malick movie that I have seen, I was curious to see how he would take his fluid style and apply it to the modern era. This is made immediately clear when he shoots the opening scene with a low grade camera, possibly from a phone. He attempts to bring his style to a new world and find the beauty in the mundane, such as a grocery store and a train ride through Europe. It is at first wondrous, but quickly turns monotonous.

Why is this? While he has tackled intimate stories, there is just something lacking in this particular tale. Maybe it is that his narrative style just doesn't suit such an intimate tale. By exploring a couple, it makes things more complicated. This is largely thanks to the feeling of disconnect that the couple establishes over the film. While this is later counterbalanced by a tale involving Javier Bardem, there is little fulfilling exploration that happens in the film. It is more something beautiful to look at than to really explore.

This isn't to say that the film is awful. It is just underwhelming largely thanks to a story that just isn't compelling enough. For all of the arguments and moments of bliss in the film, the characters often seem secondary to Malick's love of nature. This is where he succeeds, though in spurts. By cutting away to a beautiful sky or a herd of animals, he manages to keep his visual eye in tact. Even with the poetic, narrative structure that the film is set inside, it just feels like too much is missing to really make the scenes resonate. 

Javier Bardem
The film is going for a sense of awe, which only makes it harder to enjoy. While the modern era serves more as a backdrop, To the Wonder feels more generic in terms of period. Even the soundtrack by Hanan Townshend, which was amazingly used in The Tree of Life, does little to elevate the film to levels of bliss. The actors are fine, though due to the desire to be portrayed as disconnected, it doesn't help for there to be any real substance to grab onto. This feels like a lesser Malick film in spite of exploring something different. Maybe it was the rushed schedule compared to his other films, but overall, this is more of a chance to experiment as opposed to tell something fun.

The film that I come away wishing that this was is the brilliant Rust and Bone, which took the empty space and made it awe inspiring. The film, while more on a traditional narrative, had plenty of quiet moments and meditative sequences that worked because not only did it translate to film, but the actors could portray emotion very effectively. They were just as, if even more, flawed as the cast of To the Wonder, but their understanding in the environment helped to elevate the story to some of the most powerful sequences of the past few years. It is a shame that To the Wonder doesn't come that close.

In spite of itself, To the Wonder serves more as a precursor of things to come. Who knows if his other two films will actually be more effective. Little is known about them at this moment, and maybe they are more streamlined into Malick's passion. Also, it could just be that he has a more impressive repertoire to work with. Of course, at this point they could go either way and we could be looking at the unfortunate demise of a crafty film maker. One can only hope that To the Wonder was just an experiment for his other films. Either that, or Ben Affleck is just not that strong of an actor to express emotion.

With this unfortunately established, it becomes the second movie in a month that I regrettably have to consider a disappointment. While my speculation initially wasn't far off from the reality, I still feel like there are plenty of missed opportunities in To the Wonder. While Malick is not known for great actor performances, it does star Affleck, whose last film, Argo, won Best Picture and set everything up for this film to get recognition just based on his presence. Of course, Affleck has never been nominated for acting, so it would be a stretch, though one that seemed plausible with Malick behind the camera.

I think that the film will be overlooked at awards season not only because of its early release, but also just because it isn't one of the best. So far this year, films like Stoker, Spring Breakers, and even Mud have created considerable attention and have had the critical acclaim to back it up. We are on the cusp of when consideration periods get serious. Films like The Bling Ring, The East and Fruitvale Station are only months away from raising the question: "Can these get Oscar nominations?" As much as I want Stoker to be among them, it probably won't happen. Luckily, it stands more of a chance than To the Wonder, though it may be because the film's legacy for the time being is that it was Malick's first real misfire.

I'd like to think that something by Malick can get a Best Picture nomination this year, though hopefully the whimper of attention this has gotten won't damage that. To the Wonder won't convert any naysayers, and will only do justice to those wanting to pick holes in his style. However, it does look visually compelling and while essentially hollow, isn't a total waste. It is too conventional and disconnected for a Malick film. The only way that this film could get nominated is through a bias, which I feel won't happen.

Is To the Wonder capable of damaging Malick's reputation? Are the actors to blame for the film's detriments? What redeeming qualities does the film have?

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